As part of a joint verification effort by the Bangladesh Government and UNHCR, credit-card sized plastic identity cards are being given to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, an important move towards recognition and protection for the estimated 900,000 who have been forcibly displaced from their home in Myanmar. The exercise began at the end of June, and its completion is expected after six months. As a stateless people, this move is vital to establishing the Rohingya’s right of voluntary return and will be critical in establishing accurate refugee data, necessary for the Government and humanitarian organizations to respond to and deliver humanitarian assistance.
The exercise which began on 21 June, has verified some 4,200 refugees so far and declared their places of origin in Myanmar. To confirm the individual identity for refugees over the age of 12, biometric data including fingerprints and iris scans as well as photographs are being used, says UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley. He further explains; the exercise will “help preserve their right to voluntarily return home, if and when they decide the conditions are right to do so.” For many, this will mark the first time they have received an individual identity document, providing a level of protection that has been absent for the stateless Rohingya Muslims. Beyond providing a long-term tool for assisting in the right of return, the exercise has been heralded as a measure to address the concern surrounding the logistics of providing humanitarian assistance. Yaxley noted it “will help consolidate a unified database for the purposes of protection, identity management, document, provision of assistance, population statistics and ultimately solutions” for the scores of refugees who largely reside in Bangladesh.
While the perilous conflict in Myanmar continues, rendering a safe return home for the Rohingya unlikely, the identity cards provide an important means to enhance the accuracy of data on refugees. This will help to understand the specific humanitarian needs of those who have sought refuge in Bangladesh. However, funding remains a barrier to the effectiveness of the provision of this assistance. Only one-quarter of the UN’s Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya refugee situation in Bangladesh is currently funded, undermining not only day-to-day support for the refugees but also reducing the ability to provide long-term developmental assistance. With monsoon rains rampaging the refugee settlements, this day-to-day support is currently being stretched to its limits. Despite the limited resources to address these shorter-term concerns, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Filippo Grandi has equally stressed the need for greater resources to “develop education, healthcare, and infrastructure to build a more sustainable life for Rohingya refugees and their hosts.”
To the Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship in the Buddhist majority Myanmar and are effectively rendered stateless, receiving no recognition in the country’s 1982 officially recognized ethnic groups, this move is one small step towards change. Since August, an estimated 720,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh, since the Myanmar army and Buddhist vigilantes launched successive attacks on villages largely in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The forced displacement has resulted in one of the world’s largest and fastest growing refugee emergencies in decades, and the atrocities committed by the military have been described by the UN as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, with rights groups going further and classifying it as genocide.
The identity cards are of value largely in their validation of the identity of the Rohingya. For many, this may provide a glimpse of hope for the future. As mentioned, they will also be vital in providing the data to understand and campaign for humanitarian assistance from governments and NGOs. However, for the initiative to reach its ultimate potential, providing a means for voluntary return, there must exist a more meaningful effort at the diplomatic level to end the conflict. Recognition provides the first step in a long campaign for justice and protection for the Rohingya. Nevertheless, its significance will only be felt once there is adequate progress towards funding goals and conflict resolution efforts.
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