On Wednesday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed Myanmar for the failure of a recent attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees. “We’ve seen Myanmar could not win Rohingyas’ trust in creating a conducive situation for their dignified return,” Hasina was quoted as saying in Parliament.
Her comment came two weeks after Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh had refused to board buses that would have taken them to Mynamar. This resulted in Myanmar missing the August 2019 target for repatriation. An earlier deadline was missed in January 2018, when Bangladesh delayed repatraition plans.
According to United Nations estimates, some 1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August 2017, and have been set up in two camps by the Bangladesh government in Cox’s Bazar. In November 2017, following talks, Bangladesh announced that a joint working group of UNHCR, Bangladesh, and Myanmar would be set up to work out the terms of repatriation, which would be completed by 2019. In March 2018, Bangladesh submitted a list of 8,000 refugees for repatriation, but Myanmar accepted the names of only 374, citing incomplete documentation. In May 2018, Myanmar announced that 1,100 verified Rohingya refugees would be repatriated.
Myanmar and the UN signed a confidential memorandum of understanding in June 2018. When details were leaked online, refugees rejected it. Bangladesh-based Rohingya political activist Ko Ko Linn told The Guardian, “We have long been seeking a guarantee from the Burmese government of restoration of our citizenship rights before we return. But they have skirted this issue of citizenship in the MoU…”
In 2018, Reuters reported on a list of demands by Rohingya elders at one refugee camp. They wanted Myanmar to announce that it would give the refugees citizenship; recognise them as an ethnic group; return land they once occupied; rebuild their homes, mosques and schools; and hold the Myanmarese military accountable for killings.
The failed repatriation
The Dhaka Tribune quoted Bangladesh Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen as saying that Bangladesh and Myanmar were “fully ready” to resume repatriation, “but some Rohingya leaders and NGOs were reportedly discouraging them to return”. Four refugee families with some 18 people had almost boarded a bus, but were reportedly dissuaded by fellow refugees who told them they would not be able to return to their villages or get citizenship. The UNHCR said in a statement: “So far none of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time. UNHCR will continue assisting the government of Bangladesh in this process…”
The genesis of the crisis
The Rohingya are a Bengali-speaking Muslim minority in Myanmar, whose government considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and does not recognise them as citizens under the Burmese Citizenship Law of 1972. The Rohingya live mainly in the northern region of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which was once part of the Kingdom of Arakan (1429-1785) that also included modern-day Chottogram (Chittagong) in Bangladesh.
The refugee crisis followed attacks on Myanmar border police in October 2016 in Rakhine, for which the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army took responsibility. In retaliation by the military, several Rohingya villagers were killed, raped and jailed. Human rights groups said Myanmar’s soldiers were responsible for rape and killings even while Rohingya were trying to escape.
Rohingya and Bangladesh
The Daily Star has reported that since 2017, 4,300 acres of hills and forests have been sacrificed to make space for refugee shelters. Some 1,485 hectares of forests have been razed and encroached upon for firewood.
In March 2019, Reuters reported that Bangladesh was “struggling to cope with the influx” of refugees, and wanted to start relocating them to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal, with UN help. Refugees began protesting and refused to relocate.
Inside camps, according to UN and media reports, refugees were facing violence, assault and kidnapping by fellow Rohingya. Bangladesh had to significantly increase police strength inside the camps. Human rights activists reported that Rohingya women were being trafficked to various countries, or being forced into prostitution in Bangladesh.