The repatriation process remains in limbo
The repatriation of some 3,000 Muslim refugees back to Myanmar, who have been in camps in Bangladesh for nearly two years, was supposed to start Thursday. But widespread fear and confusion in the camps have left the repatriation plans in limbo.
Nearly a million Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh from Rakhine in Myanmar’s Western region, after the military-led crackdown there in August 2017. The United Nations has repeatedly called the army’s actions tantamount to “genocide” -- an allegation the country’s civilian and military leaders strenuously reject.
Recently, the Myanmar and Bangladesh government finally agreed to try to seriously start the repatriation process -- making synchronized announcements last Friday that the first batch of returnees to be repatriated would begin Thursday.
But this is only after the two countries have been involved in a long, drawn-out negotiation process on repatriation, which continued to yield little progress, despite Bangladesh and Myanmar signing a bilateral agreement in late November 2017.
Nothing has happened since then, with both governments blaming each other for the stalemate -- trading accusations and insinuations as to who was responsible for the continued delays. But the significant participation of China behind the scenes, and persistent Japanese nudging has been instrumental in this latest bilateral agreement to begin repatriation. The regional group Asean has also lent its support to the process.
Even at this late stage, it is unclear whether the repatriation will, in fact, begin as planned. Most refugees in the camps are reluctant to commit themselves to return at this stage. It seems the move is far too rushed and ill-planned, according to sources in both Bangladesh and Myanmar.
It is about two weeks since the Bangladesh government gave the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) the list of 3,540 refugees that Myanmar had submitted -- with the names of those refugees that had been approved -- and asked them for their assistance in ascertaining who on the list were prepared to return.
According to UNHCR staff in Bangladesh, the UN organization began what they call “an intentions survey” a few days ago. This is reportedly consultations with individual refugee families in private to determine whether they want to return. The process is ongoing and continuing, according to the agency. “However, given the numbers of refugees, this process will take time,” said Louise Donovan, the UNHCR spokesperson in Cox’s Bazar.
“The refugees must be able to make a free and individual decision,” she said. “During our discussions with the refugees, UNHCR will provide the available information that we have concerning conditions in Myanmar and in the areas of return. However, UNHCR is severely constrained because of the current limitations on UNHCR’s access to areas in Rakhine, which prevents us from fully assessing the conditions of return.”
The refugees in the camps have continuously refused to contemplate returning to Myanmar for fear of further violence. An ill-considered attempt to kick-start the process in November last year sowed further fear and confusion in the camps, and finally failed after refugee protests.
The Myanmar government has been at pains to convince the refugees that the situation has changed in Rakhine. Late last month, a delegation led by the Myanmar foreign ministry’s permanent secretary Min Thu also visited the camps and explained the situation in Myanmar to them, assuring them that no one would be forced to return and hailed the improved domestic situation in Rakhine: Better access to education and health facilities, livelihood projects, and activities to promote social cohesion reconciliation between the various communities.
Of course, the issue of citizenship remains a thorny problem that still needs to be tackled head-on by the Myanmar authorities. Several refugees, earlier this week, insisted to camp officials that, without guarantees of citizenship, there is no point in returning.
Of course both the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments have been at pains to assure the refugees that they will guarantee “a safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable repatriation.” But the security measures in place, and whether it is safe to return, are not something the UN on the ground appears ready to assess, seeing it as a bilateral matter. All the UNHCR is really concerned about, is whether the process is truly voluntary.
Sources in the camps say tension is rising as most refugees are unsure of the future, the fear is that the process may become mandatory and there are already accusations of local Bangladeshi officials becoming heavy handed in their eagerness to start the repatriation process. There is a strong possibility of a repeat of last year’s fiasco when buses pulled up at the camps to transport them back to Rakhine -- decked with banners in Myanmar saying welcome -- and no one got on.
There is no doubt that Myanmar and Bangladesh have been under increased pressure -- from China and to a lesser degree Japan -- in recent months to break the impasse. China’s special envoy, Sun Guoxiang has been devoting his attention to helping Myanmar solve its Rakhine problems and commence refugee repatriation. He has made several visits this year with that specific mission in mind.
Chinese diplomats have also been working with Bangladesh behind the scenes to move the process forward. PM Sheikh Hasina elicited China’s support to solve the refugee issue when she met President Xi Jingping in Beijing during her state visit there in July.
Last week, envoy Sun had separate meetings with the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army Chief Senior Min Aung Hlaing and discussed the way forward for Rakhine with them.
Japan has also been dipping its oar into the Rakhine issue, and gently pushing both the civilian and military leaders to bite the bullet and start taking back refugees. For Tokyo though, the UN has to be a central player in the process.
The Japanese foreign minister, on his recent visits at the end of July to Naypyidaw and Dhaka, also urged the two governments to be more cooperative and find a way to start the repatriation process.
Bangladesh and Myanmar are heavily dependent on both China and Japan for aid, investment, and trade. It seems that economics might successfully break the deadlock between the two countries. But regional pressure alone cannot guarantee the refugees will return to Rakhine.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region. This article was first published in the Bangkok Post.