Rohingya Refugees In Limbo

On the 23rd of January 2020, the International Court of Justice ruled that Myanmar holds a responsibility to look after the Rohingya Muslims who have been terrorised in their own country. Whilst Myanmar should certainly be held liable for the cultural genocide of the Rohingya Muslims and, as the Hague has ruled, be accountable for the ongoing safety of this cultural group, the issue is complex and fraught. There has been much talk of Aung San Suu Kyi’s “fall from grace” (as The Guardian described it) and an international outcry at the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. Yet, despite this global criticism, there has been relative inaction on the issue. In fact, an Al Jazeera report from mid-2019 accused the UN of “downplaying human rights abuses and ignoring the warning signs.” This is especially worrisome for the Rohingyas and their supporters as, according to Anna Roberts, executive director of the rights group Burma Campaign UK, “the chances of Aung San Suu Kyi implementing this ruling will be zero unless significant international pressure is applied”.

Even if Myanmar does do everything in its power to aid the Rohingya Muslims and protect them from harm, over 730,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh where they are languishing in the largest refugee camps in the world, with no wish to comply with repatriation plans, as per The New York Times’ report on the issue. These camps are riddled with dangers, from human trafficking to elephant stampedes and are also a burden on the Bangladeshi government and population. Yet, the Rohingya Muslims are unlikely to believe the words of Myanmar’s social welfare minister, Mr Win Myat Aye, that “there is no reason not to come back”. For them, there is little incentive to return to the land where, according to Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 of their compatriots were killed.

There are no current effective policies concerning the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh. While Bangladesh and Myanmar do have repatriation policies in place, these have only resulted in the return of 200 people to Myanmar. There are two main reasons for the impotency of these policies. The first is the process of creating the policies; according to The New York Times, these policies are merely “dusted off versions of inefficient agreements from the 1990s”. Essentially, there are lists created by the Bangladeshi government of Rohingya to send home without the input of the Rohingyas themselves. This is where the second reason comes into play: as previously addressed, the Rohingya in question don’t want to go home and so simply refuse to leave. The current system of inaction works fairly well for the governments involved; the Bangladeshi government can tell their domestic population that they’re doing what they can to get rid of the burden on their population without actually sending the Rohingya home, which would cause an international outcry. Myanmar can argue that they’re trying to get the Rohingya back to fulfil the Hague’s ruling, without actually taking much responsibility for the issue. Aside from the recent court decision, there has been little international action on the issues. The public outcry when the issue first appeared in the news in 2017 led international governments to decry Aung San Suu Kyi, but there is yet to be tangible action. Meanwhile, amongst the inaction, the Rohingya are left suffering in purgatory. It is time for the international community to respond to the crisis (if rather belatedly).

This is not the first time a humanitarian crisis has been ignored and thus allowed to continue unchecked. In 1943, a Josiah Dubois, a US Treasury official, described the British policy as such: ““What are we going to do with the Jews?” – we let them die because we don’t know what to do with them”. Yet, despite this far from auspicious statement, Britain did accept Jewish refugees after the war, and though critics may (correctly) argue that they could have accepted more, this is still more than most countries have done for the Rohingya people. Ideally, countries around the world should open their borders to these people, to allow them to live a life free of persecution, trafficking, natural disasters and elephant stampedes.

Unfortunately, the current international climate is unlikely to accept such a solution. After the refugee crisis which peaked in 2015, and with the current rise of populist right-wing governments and political parties, it is blindly idealistic (and frankly foolhardy) to believe that more refugees will be accepted around the world. However, these realities cannot be used as an excuse for further international inaction. The Hague decision was a step in the right direction, but the international community needs to do more. Firstly, the UN Security Council should vote to impose sanctions on Myanmar until they can prove their fulfilment of the Hague’s ruling. Although this may be difficult with China’s potential to veto any Security Council actions, it is hoped that they could be persuaded not to veto. In addition, the international community must direct foreign aid toward the refugee camps in Bangladesh in order to improve the conditions of said camps, without further burdening the Bangladeshi government. Finally, the UN should help negotiate better repatriation agreements, in which the Rohingyas receive guarantees of protection once they return to Myanmar. These agreements would be bolstered by the UN sanctions on Myanmar, and potentially the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces for a limited time period to prevent the further massacre of the Rohingyas. Only through this combination of international collaboration and repatriation will the Rohingyas feel safe enough to return to their country and further carnage be limited.