International Policy Digest

World News /29 Aug 2019

Two Years of Limbo for the Rohingya

Two years—almost to the day—since the latest Rohingya crisis broke out, Bangladesh and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sent buses to repatriate some of the refugees back to Myanmar. Not a single one of the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh agreed to board the buses, however, explaining that they still do not feel safe in their home country. “If I go back to Myanmar, I’ll end up in a mass grave,” one refugee insisted, while another claimed that he would sooner commit suicide than return to Myanmar.

Nothing has changed

Though Myanmar has ostensibly made preparations for the Rohingya’s return, human rights groups have raised serious questions about whether the situation in Myanmar is any safer now for the Rohingya than it was two years ago. Then, Myanmar’s military embarked on a brutal crackdown against the ethnic Muslim minority—an estimated 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of violence alone, while witnesses described widespread looting and rape. Naypyidaw insists it was going after terrorists, but the international community—led by the UN—have characterised the campaign as a genocide, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking a full probe into the atrocities apparently perpetrated by Myanmar’s military.

Despite this strong rhetoric from the international community, however, the West has taken not taken sufficient concrete steps to ratchet up pressure on Myanmar. China and India, meanwhile, pushed Bangladesh into seeking a bilateral deal with Myanmar which one analyst called a “strategic mistake” on Dhaka’s part, arguing that it hasn’t sufficiently coerced Naypyidaw into changing its ways.

The deal hurriedly agreed to without the consultation of essential stakeholders such as the refugees themselves, set out an unrealistic timetable for repatriation. What’s more, the UN and others pointed to the bilateral agreement’s lack of guarantees that the Rohingya’s situation would improve if they returned.

Indeed, Myanmar’s military, as strong as ever, has failed to give any indication that the Rohingya’s rights—including that of full citizenship—would be respected. There are widespread reports that any returning Rohingya would be housed in facilities resembling “open-air prisons”—the refugees’ original homes and villages have mostly been razed to the ground. Given this disappointing reality, it’s not surprising that the refugees are wary of returning.

Stuck in between

Last week’s empty buses recall last November’s failed attempt to send the Rohingya home. Then, like now, the refugees resoundingly rejected the repatriation plan. Many even fled into hiding in the forests surrounding refugee camps, fearful that the Bangladeshi government would break its promise not to send them back against their will.

Remaining in Bangladesh, however, comes with its own challenges. The sprawling camps which have sprung up to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees are chronically overcrowded— in some instances, as many as 20 people are living on tiny parcels of less than 20 square meters—and houses are extremely makeshift constructions, often cobbled together from bamboo and plastic.

The precarious nature of life in the refugee camps is partly due to the Bangladeshi government’s slow pace in developing a long-term plan for hosting the Rohingya. Though many have praised Dhaka’s willingness to take in the refugees, Bangladesh’s Awami League-led government has resisted the reality that’s becoming increasingly clear: the majority of the Rohingya refugees aren’t going home to Myanmar anytime soon.

In the meantime, Dhaka has barred the refugees from traveling outside the camps, in hopes that “[keeping] them from mingling with the rest of the population” will hasten their eventual repatriation. In a similar vein, the refugees are not allowed to build “permanent” houses or establish schools teaching either Myanmar’s or Bangladesh’s official national curriculum.

No plan for the future

Despite these suboptimal conditions, the refugees still prefer to stay in safety in Bangladesh than attempting to return to a Myanmar where they have no rights and their security is not guaranteed. In the wake of the latest failed repatriation drive, it’s not clear what Dhaka’s plan is to change the status quo.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen responded to the empty buses by insisting that “the problem has been created by Myanmar and it’s their responsibility to solve it” and suggested that Rohingya leaders should go investigate the current conditions in Myanmar. Momen apparently hoped that seeing the situation in person would entice the Rohingya to return—though independent reports suggesting that Myanmar has made only “minimal” preparations for the Rohingya to live in “safe and dignified conditions” would beg to differ.

Where to cast the blame?

For her part, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has blamed international aid organisations for “[sabotaging] the repatriation efforts by encouraging Rohingya to protest the plan,” while some of her Awami League lawmakers have suggested without evidence that the NGOs helping Rohingya refugees are involved in a “deep-rooted conspiracy.”

Hasina’s determination to send the Rohingya home as soon as possible is somewhat ironic: despite the strain hosting the refugees has put on Bangladesh, Hasina herself may have politically benefitted from the crisis.

Elections last December which swept Hasina to a third straight term at Bangladesh’s helm were marred by widespread irregularities. At least 19 people were killed in violence on the day of an election the New York Times editorial board termed “farcical.” Thousands of dissident journalists and prominent opposition figures—including former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, one of the first voices to advocate for Bangladesh to give shelter to the Rohingya— were jailed. Hasina’s Awami League picked up 96% of seats in parliament—a suspiciously high figure which could be explained by the ballot stuffing and voter intimidation which Transparency International observed in 47 out of 50 constituencies.

Western powers including the EU and the US called for an investigation into the polling irregularities, but the goodwill Hasina had garnered through accepting the Rohingya helped her weather the controversy and remain in power.

Hasina may have won herself another five-year term, but throughout that stint, she will be confronted by the increasingly urgent necessity of developing a sustainable long-term plan for addressing the Rohingya crisis.