It seems to be a case of wishful thinking.
Even as Myanmar’s response to the Bangladeshi government’s first list of more than 8,000 Rohingya refugees for repatriation in February was to “verify” around 600 and not to facilitate a single return, Dhaka reportedly plans to send a second list, of 10,000.
Bangladesh rightly insists on the refugees’ right of return. Ethnic cleansing is never acceptable and any country that forces minority populations out should remain under constant pressure to reverse course and bring those forced to leave safely back to their homes.
But this is not the time for Bangladesh to be putting forward thousands of names of Rohingya to go back to the villages that Myanmar authorities have burned and bulldozed, erasing evidence of their crimes against humanity.
Before the start of actual returns, Myanmar should agree to a set of prerequisites for return, including unfettered, independent monitoring of returnees, free movement, restoration of lost homes and properties, and access to services.
Myanmar officials should also take substantive steps to rectify the discriminatory policies which have been used to persecute the Rohingya minority for decades, starting with denial of citizenship.
No one should backtrack in insisting on Rohingya refugees’ right of return, but much more needs to be done before they can safely return home
Refugee return also cannot be divorced from the question of impunity for the crimes that caused the refugees to flee.
Myanmar needs to allow access to independent investigators, the media, and the UN-mandated fact-finding mission and special rapporteur. Repatriation is not an end in itself, but part of a process of reintegration that involves a government’s commitment to respecting rights and the rule of law, truth-seeking, and accountability for past crimes.
At the proper time, Bangladesh should put forward the names of refugees who freely choose to return to Myanmar. There will need to be full and accurate information about conditions back home with transparency throughout the process by all parties, including facilitation and monitoring by the UN refugee agency.
But now is not the time.
While keeping pressure on Myanmar to allow the Rohingya to return home is understandable, putting forward another list of 10,000 names for return risks being a distraction from the more immediate imperative as the rainy season approaches.
The urgent priority now is to keep vulnerable refugees safe from flooding and the outbreak of disease. No one should backtrack in insisting on Rohingya refugees’ right of return, but much more needs to be done before they can safely, voluntarily, and sustainably return home to Myanmar.
In the meantime, there’s work to be done.
Bill Frelick is Refugees Director at Human Rights Watch.