Since late August 2017, more than 700,000 people have fled violence in Myanmar and take shelter in Bangladesh. What has changed in this one year in the lives of the refugees and the people who shelter them? How far are we from achieving safe repatriation and basic human dignity for these people? The Dhaka Tribune explores these issues and more in a series of in-depth stories to be published this week
On August 25, the Myanmar security forces launched a systematic assault on hundreds of villages belonging to the Rohingya ethnic minority in northern Rakhine state that borders Bangladesh. The onslaught came in the wake of a series of attacks on security posts by a Rohingya armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
What followed was one of the biggest refugee crises of all time, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh to save their lives. In the face of this humanitarian crisis, Bangladesh opened its borders and took the refugees in.
The number of Rohingya arrivals from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August 25 last year now stands over 700,000. Including the refugees who have come here over the years, there are now over a million refugees in crowded camps located in the hilly areas of Cox’s Bazar.
The government began biometric registration of the refugees to help with repatriation. As of now, under this process there are 1,116,417 refugees in the camps, but more live in the nearby towns and around the district.
Bangladesh has been praised worldwide for its actions in sheltering and supporting the refugees. But there has been no visible progress in the repatriation process.
While the overwhelming response of the world and the international community at large has been a condemnation of Myanmar and a demand for safe return of the Rohingya to their homeland, little political action has taken place in this last year.
The positions of neighbour India and friendly nations China and Russia have not been unambiguous in this issue. The government has faced a difficult time negotiating with Myanmar.
Myanmar’s leader Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party shares the state power with the military, has repeatedly called the refugees Bangali, an official position that implies that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
State Counsellor Suu Kyi in her recent remarks in Singapore said it is only Bangladesh that can decide how quickly Rohingyas would return to Myanmar.
However, in January the two governments agreed upon a time frame for repatriation, and in June Myanmar signed a memorandum with UN agencies that outlined the UN system’s support to creating conditions for voluntary and safe refugee returns from Bangladesh.
Under this deal the UN agencies are getting access to the Rakhine state for the first time since the violence began there.
The UN Security Council last month held a closed door meeting and called upon Myanmar to step up efforts for the return of the refugees. The country however, has ignored all pressure from the international community and has continued to delay the repatriation process. In April, they only acknowledged 559 people from a list of 8,032 refugees provided by Bangladesh as Myanmar citizens and agreed to take them back.
“So far, the only progress is that the talks with Myanmar on repatriation have not stopped. And unfortunately, Rohingyas are still coming into Bangladesh for lack of conducive environment in Rakhine State,” a senior official told UNB.
“It's not true that Bangladesh is delaying the repatriation process,” the official said adding that Rohingyas are still coming in small groups every week.
Asif Munier, an independent refugee expert who has worked on the Rohingya crisis for the United Nations, told the Dhaka Tribune that the Rohingya repatriation was a complex issue.
“This is the world’s largest refugee camp, so the eyes of the world are on Bangladesh, but not as much on the repatriation itself. Bangladesh has left no stone unturned in this effort. But our civil society and international aid agencies have to increase the pressure on Myanmar,” he said.
He said it appeared as if there is a fear of Myanmar in the international community.
“Aid is coming in for the Rohingya refugees, but there seems to be a lot of reluctance for political solutions. So our government as well as others have to raise the pressure and bring Myanmar to a place of accountability,” he added.
Cox’s Bazar Rohingya Prevention and Repatriation Committee President Hamidul Haque Chowdhury said: “Myanmar’s unwillingness to repatriate the Rohingya is clear. They have agreed outwardly under international pressure but they do not have the intention. The country removed the Rohingyas from Rakhine state deliberately.”
“Despite the fact that we have made billions of dollars worth of deals with India, China and Russia in the last few years, these countries did not stand by our side in this crisis,” he added.
‘No doubt the Rohingyas will return’
Asked about the progress of Rohingya repatriation, Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque told UNB they are very hopeful that Rohingyas will return to their homes in Rakhine through a process.
He, however, said the repatriation process is getting delayed a bit while Rohingyas want safety, security and their citizenship rights before they return to Myanmar. "There's no doubt they'll go back to Myanmar."
"The entire process is a challenge. No challenge is beyond solution. We can overcome any challenge if there is a strong will between the two countries or parties. That's important," said the Foreign Secretary.
He said the international pressure on Myanmar sustained over the past one year as Bangladesh worked both bilaterally and multilaterally to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. "We've seen broader embargo...I don't see any possibility that pressure will come down."
Bangladesh has emphasized the need for accelerating efforts to create a congenial environment there and build houses and villages for the returnees to facilitate the repatriation.
Foreign Secretary Haque reiterated that the repatriation issue in any country is a very 'complex and difficult' issue which cannot be done overnight.
"They (Myanmar) have shown what preparations they've taken so for taking Rohingyas back from Bangladesh. I would say something is done," he said.
Bangladesh will maintain a multilateral 'strong engagement' to keep up pressure on Myanmar so that it takes back Rohingyas ensuring their safety and citizenship through bilateral mechanisms, a source told UNB.
"Bangladesh's multilateral engagement helped keep Myanmar under pressure resulting in some outcomes bilaterally," the diplomatic source told UNB.
Whatever has been achieved so far, including the signing of an MoU on repatriation of Rohingyas and building some structures in Rakhine State, is the outcome of pressure through a multilateral approach, the source said.
In November last year, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an 'instrument' on Rohingya repatriation with no ending deadline amid high hopes that the forcibly displaced Rohingyas will start returning to their homeland within the following two months.
However, the repatriation of Rohingyas is yet to begin as Myanmar has 'failed' to create conducive environment in Rakhine State for the safe return of Rohingyas.
“The conditions on the ground are still not conducive to a safe and voluntary repatriation,” spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Stephane Dujarric told reporters on August 17 in a regular briefing.
Diplomatic sources said China, India and Japan have apparently created some pressure on Myanmar for a peaceful solution to the Rohingya crisis.
The UN Security Council will hold an 'open briefing' on the situation in Myanmar under the UK Presidency on August 28, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told UNB.
He said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are scheduled to brief the Council.
There will be further high-level meetings and events during the General Debate and high-level segment of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in September.