It is unlikely that a large portion of the Rohingya people, who have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in strife-torn Rakhine, may ever actually return to Myanmar, say experts.
The repatriation process was supposed to start on January 23 as agreed by the two neighbours on November 23. However, it has already been delayed, and Bangladesh on Friday handed over its first list of Rohingyas ready for repatriation.
Experts said weakness in Bangladesh’s diplomatic manoeuvres, lack of safety assurance for the Rohingyas upon their return home, and lack of necessary support from other neighbouring countries are among the factors creating uncertainty over the repatriation process.
Dr CR Abrar, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said the repatriation process was being delayed not only for technical matters, but also for several ground-level complexities.
“As per media reports, conditions in Rakhine are not conducive to the safe return of Rohingya refugees," said Abrar, also the director of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
Former Bangladesh ambassador Humayun Kabir said the only way Dhaka can repatriate the refugees is to urge the international community to mount pressure on Myanmar to take back its nationals.
“Repatriation of the Rohingyas is a complicated process. It is being delayed as the ground-level scenario is different [from what we understand by reading media reports]. Rohingya people are still fleeing to Bangladesh as they continue to face repression in their homeland.”
He also cast doubt on whether the repatriation would really take place, as the first date for repatriation was already over.
Journalist and researcher Afsan Chowdhury said that there is no way to think that Myanmar will take back its nations unless there is a concrete agreement in place.
He said: “We cannot deny that the repatriation process has made some progress. But it is certain that sending the Rohingyas back home will not be so easy because of the conditions set by the Myanmar government.
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The conditions include providing documented proof of long-term residence in Myanmar, returning to Rakhine of their own will, proving that they have relatives on the Myanmar side of the border. And for children, the Myanmar authorities said they have to provide evidence of their parents being permanent residents of the country.
Afsan, however, slammed the Bangladesh government for its poor diplomatic manoeuvring in resolving the crisis.
“It has been proved that Myanmar's diplomacy is much stronger than ours, and it’s a shame for us.”
Earlier on Thursday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi made it clear that conditions in Rakhine are not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas.
“The causes of their [Rohingyas’] flight have not been addressed, and we have yet to see substantive progress on addressing the exclusion and denial of rights that has deepened over the last decades, rooted in their lack of citizenship," he said.
The UN official also stressed the need for proper implementation of recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State for the sustainable return of the refugees and also for their safety.
“I fully endorse the two-track approach envisaged in the report: the first focused on access to citizenship and the restoration of rights for the Rohingya, including freedom of movement, access to education and basic services, and to livelihoods; and the second on inclusive development aimed at improving the condition of all communities in Rakhine state, and on fostering peaceful co-existence,” he said.
He also stressed that refugees must determine the timing and place of returns, and in that context, building their confidence is crucial.
Voices from the refugee camps
After the delays to the scheduled repatriation on January 23, the Dhaka Tribune spoke to several Rohingya refugees and delegates at the camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar since February 1.
The Rohingya refugees clearly said they wished to return to their homeland, but said they would only do so if citizenship, justice, compensation and security were ensured.
Rahimullah, a 50 year that used to live in Fakirabazar under Maungdaw Township of Rakhine state in Myanmar, said: “I fled on the day after Eid-ul-Azha along with my wife and five children to save our lives from the Myanmar Army and the Moghs. We have made a temporary life here, but we miss our home. Myanmar is our country and we want to go back, but our rights have to be ensured.”
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Sexagenarian Mohib Ullah, from Chindiprang under Buthidaung, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Bangladesh is not our country. We are Rohingyas, not Bangali. People in Myanmar scolded us by saying we were ‘Bangal’. But we are also Myanmar nationals and we have the right to live in Rakhine. We just need our identity and our rights, nothing else.”
Mohamad Hussain, a 25-year-old from Hatipara village under Maungdaw Township, said the Rohingya wanted recognition from the Myanmar government more than anything else.
“If our government accepts that we are citizens of Myanmar, I will return at once. I will not even demand compensation for the violence,” he added.
Ramzan Ali, 23, from Buthidaung Township in Rakhine, said: “Living in Myanmar is our right. We want to be educated. We want to play a role in Myanmar, and not be outcast by the military.”
Nearly 700,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh since insurgent attacks on police outposts triggered a renewed military crackdown in Rakhine state on August 25 last year, according to data from the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission.
The Myanmar military and local Moghs have reportedly committed numerous atrocities on the Rohingya people in this time, leading the UN to declare the army’s activity in the Rakhine state an act of ethnic cleansing.
In November last year, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an MoU to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in January, but the process has been delayed.