The Rohingya must be able to return home

Even as 180 refugees were rescued off a boat, a resolution for their plight is long overdue

A Rohingya refugee quenches his thirst after reaching Krueng Raya, Indonesia, by boat on December 25. AFP
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For the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group predominantly from Myanmar's western Rakhine state, this has been another grim year with few tangible solutions to end their continued persecution and statelessness. Last year, 287 Rohingya refugees travelled by sea to Bangladesh from Myanmar. That number shot up this year, with about 1,920 of them having made the journey, according to UN estimates.

This has also been yet another deadly year for the marginalised refugees, who in order to escape violence, undertake treacherous sea journeys to find a temporary home. On Tuesday, after almost a month of being stranded at sea, a boat carrying more than 180 Rohingya was rescued by Indonesian authorities. Not everyone made it, with 20 passengers, including women and children, reported to have died of hunger and exhaustion. The third boat to have been allowed to land in the Indonesian province of Aceh in recent weeks, it is just the latest reminder of the plight of those who undertake such hazardous voyages.

"Sometimes I feel I am not human," was the expression of one ethnic Rohingya who wrote in these pages last year from the Bangladeshi coastal town of Cox's Bazar, home to one of the world's largest refugee camps.

For people like him, safe shores are not easy to come by, even though countries in the region and beyond – including Bangladesh, the US, the UAE, Italy, Japan – have helped in various ways, offering both short and long-term assistance.

But despite broad international consensus on the Rohingya's predicament and commendable efforts from individual nations, a more concerted international strategy is required for a lasting solution to be found. The true measure of such a solution would necessarily mean that they are able to return safely to Myanmar and be welcomed to a stable home country.

As yet, this is a far cry. While it is believed that some 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, about 730,000 find themselves in refugee camps inside Bangladesh, including several thousands who fled their home country after the violence brought on by a lethal military crackdown more than five years ago. A large percentage of these refugees live in congested camps, and in many cases, far-from-ideal conditions.

But the Rohingya crisis predates 2017, as the issue of displacement and the persecution of an entire people goes back generations, to 40 years ago.

Despite this grim reality, one key development last week lent a glimmer of hope when the UN Security Council adopted its first resolution on Myanmar in 74 years. Since the military coup of February 1, 2021 ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government, the country has been in the throes of an armed resistance, waged by its myriad ethnic groups, amid reports of widespread violence and human rights abuses. The resolution demanded an end to this violence and the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.

While the resolution has been criticised by some for not being strong enough, it does state the importance of seeking solutions and peace and stability in Myanmar. And while not specifically about the Rohingya, it does amount to an important step taken by the international community towards pressuring the government to find a peaceful solution for the country and all its citizens, including, it is hoped, all ethnic groups.

Ultimately, the solution to the decades-old problem involving the Rohingya is that those who have fled feel secure enough to return home to a safe, stable and inclusive Myanmar, and for those who remain to be able to live their lives securely. Without this, no amount of international aid, or assimilation of refugees by friendly countries, or even sanctions against Myanmar, will help the Rohingya, who for no fault of their own have not had basic rights, with many deprived of a place to call home.

Published: December 28, 2022, 2:00 AM