For many refugees around the world, it is the thought of eventually returning home that sustains them. Even if home is a country blighted by war or an environmental catastrophe, it is still a special place where loved ones may live, where their language is spoken, where they may still own property and to where, just maybe, they might return to rebuild their lives one day.
However, for the 1.1 million Rohingya marooned in Bangladesh, there are fears that conditions for Muslim minorities in their home country have worsened since a 2021 coup. This makes the latest news about an apparent bilateral repatriation programme a cause for concern.
According to reports, more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees, including 150 babies, are on the list of a pilot repatriation project to Myanmar. Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, told The National that 1,140 Rohingya were on a list sent by Myanmar and that a delegation from the government visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar last month, interviewing more than 400 refugees.
The temptation to leave behind the poverty, illness and danger that stalks the camps must be strong. However, some of the refugees have raised doubts about the project. One Rohingya man, Abu Sufyan, told The National that he never applied for repatriation and was mystified as to why he and his family were on the list. After being questioned by visiting officials about people in his home village in Rakhine state, Abu Sufyan discovered later that his wife and children made it on to a final list but he did not.
Many other refugees told The National they were not willing to return to Myanmar without assurances about citizenship and other basic rights.
Mr Rahman, the Bangladeshi official, has said that the repatriation process “should be voluntary, done with dignity and should be sustainable”. But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although aware of the Myanmar delegation’s visit, has said it is not involved in the discussions.
Last month, the UN organisation released a statement in which it described the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar as “not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees”. The UNHCR has insisted on the right of every refugee to go to their home country “based on an informed choice” but added that no one should be forced into it.
The Rohingya have endured much, and continue to do so. Last month, The National carried an article by Thomas Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who described how Rohingya refugees had been told that the World Food Programme (WFP) had cut their rations by 17 per cent, forcing them to get by on food rations valued at $0.27 a day.
“The Rohingya, who are commonly referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority,” he added, “are now being forced to suffer even more”.
It is a difficult situation. The UNHCR says that “many refugees have reiterated that they do hope to go home to Myanmar as soon as conditions allow”. This is understandable. But to succeed, the process needs to have refugees’ trust and give people living in extreme hardship the information and assurances they need to make a decision.
The Rohingyas’ plight is one that has been overlooked too often. Now is a moment to refocus attention on a struggling community of more than a million people, many of whom want that most basic of human rights – the right to go home.