It’s increasingly clear that the November agreement to repatriate Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh back to Myanmar, will continue to be delayed or stalled over the coming months.
Bangladesh is presently hosting nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled their homeland in Maynmar’s Rakhine state, following a vicious military crackdown last August. Most of the refugees are presently at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Myanmar was to start accepting a small number of refugees on January 23, but that has been put on hold for the moment.
‘The process is ongoing,’ Bangladesh’s foreign minister AH Mahmood Ali said, according to The Guardian. ‘You will see it when it begins.’
For the repatriation to begin, Bangladesh will need to convince refugees it makes sense for them to return to their homeland. However, Myanmar has shown little inclination to honour the November agreement. It doesn’t really want the Rohingyas back.
‘It’s a fantasyland, make-believe world that both governments are in,’ human rights researcher David Mathieson told The Guardian.
The name ‘Rohingya’ is a self-identifying term used by the mostly Muslim descendants of people who entered the Rakhine region in two separate migrations; one in the 15th Century, the other in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The government of Myanmar does not recognize the term ‘Rohingya’ and does not recognize the Rohingyas as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Most Rohingyas are also denied citizenship of Myanmar, effectively making them a stateless people.
Even if a few Rohingyas were willing to bear with remaining stateless (and most probably aren’t), there’s the very real threat of violence. Myanmar’s military had driven them out of Rakhine in August in a campaign in which men were killed, women raped, and villages burnt.
The crackdown came after insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police check posts, killing nine on August 25.
For Bangladesh, the uncertainty over repatriation poses several problems. Dhaka has borne the brunt of the Rohingya exodus mostly because it’s a Muslim-majority country bordering Myanmar, but also because other countries in the region like India and Thailand have effectively shut their doors to the refugees.
Bangladesh has taken several measures to handle the deluge of displaced people. It has assigned its military, which has experience in disaster relief, the task of guarding and managing the camps and has created a new civilian authority to coordinate with foreign NGOS. Bangladeshi authorities are also on the lookout for organized crime and recruitment attempts by ARSA.
These initiatives however, put a strain on Bangladesh’s resources. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has led her country through the crisis, faces re-election later this year. If, as is likely, the Rohingyas continue to remain in Bangladesh, it’s conceivable locals will decide the refugees have outstayed their welcome and should leave.
Unfortunately, the Rohingyas have nowhere else to go.