Last week, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to begin the process of repatriation of Rohingya Muslims from refugee camps in Bangladesh to the Rakhine State. According to Myint Thu, a spokesman for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, a Bangladeshi foreign minister, 3,540 refugees have been cleared for return to Myanmar. The first group of refugees is scheduled to return next week.
A Bangladeshi official stated in a press conference that the repatriation plan is ‘small-scale’ and completely voluntary. In addition, the official said that “Bangladesh wants nothing but a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation.” Zaw Htay, a government spokesman for Myanmar, responded by assuring that the move from Bangladesh was “very much welcomed.”
Despite the confidence of government officials in Myanmar and Bangladesh, previous attempts at repatriation have failed, primarily due to the fact that many Rohingya living in Bangladesh do not want to return to Myanmar. In November, the two countries developed a plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar, but the process was delayed and eventually cancelled. According to a Reuters report, many of the more than 730,000 Rohingya refugees who fled the country after the government crackdown in August of 2017 fear that they will face more violence upon return to the Rakhine state. These fears have been justified by satellite images that show that the destruction of homes in the Rakhine state continued as recently as last year.
There is also concern that Myanmar has not done enough to properly prepare for the return of refugees. Just two years ago the government initiated a crackdown that the UN characterized as having “genocidal intent”; tens of thousands of Rohingya remain in camps inside Myanmar where they are denied citizenship and their movements are severely restricted.
Despite assurance from Min Thein—a Director at Myanmar’s Social Welfare Ministry—that the government is “preparing to be ready – cleaning the transit camps, reinforcing the staff levels,” the U.N. determined that conditions in the Rakhine State are not conducive for the return of refugees because government troops have been fighting Arakan army insurgents in the area for months. In July, the Australian Strategic Policy institute announced a similar finding that the government of Myanmar had made few preparations for the repatriation of refugees and that satellite images showed no sign of reconstruction in the Rakhine state. Mohammed Eleyas, a Rohingya activist with the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, added that refugees have not yet been consulted or educated about the repatriation effort that is set to begin as early as next week.
These issues are made even more concerning given the fact that Myanmar has become increasingly shut off from the rest of the world. Access to the Rakhine State for humanitarian organizations continues to be restricted and government officials are rarely permitted to speak to the press. In the same press conference where government spokesperson Zaw Htay welcomed the repatriation agreement, he also said he would no longer answer calls from the media because of the International Criminal Court’s recent ruling that it had jurisdiction to investigate crimes against Rohingya Muslims in the country. In a country with only one official government spokesman, this refusal to speak to any reporters or news organizations is especially dangerous. Without access to information about the true conditions of the Rakhine state and refugee camps in Myanmar, there is no way to ensure that returning Rohingya are not still subject to the same human rights abuses that they were in 2017.
Though the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh claim that this repatriation effort will be completely voluntary, more steps need to be taken to ensure Rohingya refugees are not subject to more coercion and abuse. The Rohingya population and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) need to have more involvement in the process, and refugees who plan to return to Myanmar need to be given accurate information about the current conditions in the country. There also needs to be greater transparency within Myanmar to ensure that the government is truly prepared to welcome refugees and that the rights of returning Rohingya are not violated. Without this broad participation and transparency, Rohingya refugees could unknowingly return to the same abusive conditions that they initially escaped.
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