Returning Rohingya refugees to a country riven by civil war seems a bizarre idea

Whether the Myanmar authorities could ensure that the repatriated would be safe is doubtful, as are their true intentions

A Rohingya boy sits on a stack of burnt materials after a fire broke out and destroyed thousands of shelters at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in March 2021. Reuters
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After decades of discrimination and, more recently, years of persecution, there are now far more Rohingya – more than 1 million – in Bangladesh than are left in their home, Rakhine State in Myanmar. Last week, a small delegation of 20 Rohingya and seven Bangladeshi officials visited an area of villages in Rakhine State to see what was on offer as part of a pilot repatriation project.

It may seem bizarre to raise the prospect of returning to a country that has been riven with civil war since the military coup of February 2021; a country where schools, concerts and ordinary villages have been bombed by the generals’ forces and in which 1.4 million people have been displaced over the past two years, and one third of the population left in need of humanitarian aid.

But as in many war-torn countries, there are occasional pockets where some semblance of normal life continues. For instance, I have been invited to a wedding in Yangon, the old capital, this autumn, with my hosts assuring me that it will be perfectly safe. (I won't be going.)

Whether the Myanmar authorities could ensure that an area for repatriated Rohingya was safe is doubtful, as are their true intentions. There is no offer of citizenship, only National Verification Cards – thus perpetuating the denial of citizenship that was enshrined in the nationality law of 1982. “This will effectively identify Rohingya as foreigners,” one of the delegation told Reuters, while another dismissed the proposed accommodation, saying: “We don't want to be confined in camps. We want to get back our land and we will build our own houses there. We'll only return with citizenship and all our rights.”

What really strains credulity over the sincerity of the offer is the obvious: how could the Rohingya return to a country run by a military that led what the Biden administration and some UN officials have called a campaign of genocide against them less than six years ago?

Yet, conditions in the 30 camps in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, where more than 1 million Rohingya live, are grim and dangerous. Hundreds of thousands more are in other countries. As this newspaper recently reported, the camps are plagued by gang wars, arson attacks, kidnappings and killings. To add to the misery, the World Food Programme cut the food vouchers it has been providing from $12 to $10 per person per month at the beginning of March, prompting Save the Children in Bangladesh to state that “Rohingya children and their families are at breaking point and need more support, not less”. In the last days, reports have come out that a further cut, to $8 per person per month, may be on the cards.

Although a survey last year showed Bangladeshis to be broadly empathetic to the Rohingya, with respondents saying they were “expelled”, “victims” and “we should help”, the country cannot be expected to host such a large number indefinitely. Quite apart from the well-documented mental health problems of the long-term displaced, Azeem Ibrahim of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide, warns of another tragic possibility. “As things stand, we may reasonably expect the Rohingya identity to disappear completely within one generation,” he wrote last year. “Their language, culture, history, their way of life, will all have been diluted to extinction in the multitude of refugee camps that are now home to the majority of people who call themselves by the centuries-old name, Rohingya.”

There is no offer of citizenship, only National Verification Cards – thus perpetuating the denial of citizenship that was enshrined in the nationality law of 1982

Equally debilitating for the people in Cox’s Bazaar is the fact that they are banned from formal employment in Bangladesh. Never mind the dignity the individual is provided by work: this is highly inefficient given the large number of able-bodied people who could be employed productively and who yearn to do so.

The UN Refugee Agency lists three main paths for refugees to live lives of dignity and peace: voluntary repatriation, resettlement and integration. The first is going to be totally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Rohingya until there is a change of regime in Myanmar. The opposition National Unity Government would offer the Rohingya citizenship, justice and accountability for crimes against them; but it is unclear when, if ever, the NUG will win power in the country. The second, resettlement, would scatter the Rohingya into a diaspora that would surely harm their identity, as no country is likely to take more than several thousand as permanent residents.

The third, integration, has been urged in a paper just published by the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington: following the examples of either the “Jordan Compact”, whereby major concessions are offered by the EU and the US in return for refugees being able to work in a normal way; or of Colombia, which naturalised nearly 2 million Venezuelans in 2021. But as the paper points out, “an ‘ask’ of this magnitude from the West of Bangladesh would likely require a face-to-face meeting between President Biden and [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina” – and enormous financial support.

That would be a mammoth effort, would require significant worldwide buy-in, and would still leave a people cruelly dispossessed of their ancestral home. What isn’t viable, though, is allowing new generations of Rohingya to grow up with little education, food or ways of providing for themselves, and next to no hope for the future. The world has plenty to worry about at the moment, but the desperate plight of the million people in Cox’s Bazar mustn’t be allowed to fall off our radar. They deserve our attention just as much as the peoples of Ukraine and Sudan.

Published: May 10, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: May 14, 2023, 5:24 AM