A month ago, Bangladesh and Myanmar formally announced an agreement to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The process could begin as early as this month-end and continue over the next two years. Last year, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid a brutal military crackdown in their native western Rakhine state. The refugees narrated horrific stories of rapes, killings and torture at the hands of the Myanmarese military, prompting the United Nations to call the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
With Bangladesh overwhelmed by more than half a million refugees, the country entered a repatriation deal with Myanmar in November 2017. According to the agreement, Myanmar will set up camps in northern Rakhine for Rohingya who are to be accepted systematically for repatriation. The first of such camps is expected to accommodate about 30,000 people temporarily. While Bangladesh, which has faced the brunt of the refugee influx, is keen to get on with the deal, the UN and several top aid agencies have raised concerns about any forcible repatriation of Rohingya. Human Rights Watch noted that the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar has an “impossible timetable” for safe and voluntary returns. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Rohingya may be forcibly returned to an “uncertain fate”.
The truth is that refugees are still traumatised by the violence that they fled. Experiencing first-hand, instances of mass killings, summary executions and widespread abuse in Rakhine, most of the refugees are drained and emotionally distraught. They have suffered a lot during the crisis and are struggling to overcome the tribulations. Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship and simply sees them as “illegal Bengalis”. Plans to settle the world’s “most marginalised minority” in transit camps, with no definitive word about their full rehabilitation or return to communities they originally came from, isn’t going to be enough.
The UN High Commission for Refugees has rightly urged Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the crisis, noting that refugees should only return when they feel it is safe to go back. This makes it incumbent upon the international community to ensure that Myanmar guarantees the safety, rehabilitation and livelihood of Rohingya in the long term. They deserve freedom of movement and access to basic services such as health care and education. UN must be allowed full access to the Rakhine state to monitor the repatriation process. World cannot afford to allow the honour and dignity of refugees to be violated — at any cost.