Two Years Later, The Rohingya Are Still Refugees

It has been two years since the campaign of violence which killed thousands of Rohingya and displaced more than 700,000 began, but fires still rage across Myanmar. Rohingya who remain in the country are confined to internment camps, imprisoned without citizenship, justice, or recourse. Those Rohingya who escaped to refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh face overcrowding, poverty, and high rates of sex trafficking. Efforts to return refugees to Myanmar two weeks ago were rebuffed, but many worry that they may be forced back to a state which still does not recognize them. Meanwhile, few of the people who participated in the 2017 genocide have faced lasting consequences.

Myanmar claims to care about the Rohingya’s plight. The country has instated a National Verification Card (NVC), which it touts as a long-awaited pathway to Rohingya citizenship. Al Jazeera reports that “top officials” met with refugees in July to discuss repatriation efforts, and the state has agreed to accept 3,450 Rohingya back from Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are unimpressed.

“The NVC has been in use for years as a tool to identify Rohingya as foreigners and they have not received any greater rights as a result,” points out Kyaw Win, a member of the Burma Human Rights Network. Naing Su Aung, who attended the July meetings, spoke for a large contingent of Rohingya when he said Myanmar’s promises of change rang hollow. In a post on Facebook, he wrote, “Finally I can say I was right, they just came here to escape from international pressure. Nothing else, that’s all.” A report released by an Australian think-tank found that, despite Myanmar’s promises to give returning refugees their homes and land back, 40% of the villages burned in the 2017 crisis have since been razed, with 58 additional villages designated for new demolition. Built in their place are internment camps and suspected military bases. It doesn’t paint a good picture of what life would be like for those who choose to return.

“One of the core issues [with repatriation attempts] is trust,” says Al Jazeera’s Stephanie Dekker. With their fellows locked up in camps and no recognition as citizens, the Rohingya have no reason to believe Myanmar won’t continue its campaign of genocide against them, or even that it recognizes the evils it has already committed. Myanmar must publicly admit its wrongdoing, and present a clear and genuine agenda for change, to rebuild the trust it shattered in its most vulnerable people.

Part of that agenda for change must include Rohingya citizenship. Myanmar enjoys a good international relationship with the United States in part because of its burgeoning democracy, but a government cannot be said to be truly democratic if those affected by its laws are not given a vote. The Rohingya must be allowed to participate in the politics of Myanmar. They have a right to vote for politicians who care for and will protect their people, livelihoods, and welfare. The NVC is not enough and should be abandoned as soon as possible in favour of formal recognition as citizens for every Myanma Rohingya.

Whether the July meetings were genuine or merely an attempt to quiet international outcry, they prove that Myanmar is listening to the rest of the world. With the August 22 release of the United Nations report on the 2017 crisis and its aftermath, perhaps Myanmar can be persuaded to make reparations to the communities it has destroyed. More pressingly, perhaps it can be persuaded to stop continuing to destroy them. That’s a good and necessary first step.

The Rohingya have a list of what they’d need to return to Myanmar: recognition by the state, full citizenship, safety and security, homes, and justice. Being treated like a human being shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Only time will tell if Myanmar meets that bar.