Planned Rohingya repatriation stalled
The repatriation of some 3,000 Muslim refugees back to Myanmar, who have been in camps in Bangladesh for nearly two years, is due to start today. But widespread fear and confusion in the camps, according to sources in Cox's Bazar -- currently home to nearly a million Rohingyas who have fled excessive violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar army -- have left the repatriation plans in limbo.
Nearly a million Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh from Rakhine in Myanmar's western region, after the military-led crackdown there in August 2017, in response to "terrorist" attacks by the Arakan Rakhine Solidarity Army (Arsa) that left scores of Myanmar security forces dead. The United Nations has repeatedly called the army's actions tantamount to "genocide" -- an allegation the country's civilian and military leaders strenuously reject.
Recently the Myanmar and Bangladesh government finally agreed to try to seriously start the repatriation process -- making synchronised announcements last Friday that the first batch of returnees to be repatriated would begin today.
But this is only after the two countries have been involved in a long, drawn out negotiation process on repatriation, which continued to yield little progress, despite Bangladesh and Myanmar signing a bilateral agreement in late November 2017 -- brokered in the background by the Chinese -- which set the following January as the start date for the return of the refugees.
Nothing has happened since then with both governments blaming each other for the stalemate -- trading accusations and insinuations as to who was responsible for the continued delays. But the significant participation of China behind the scenes and persistent Japanese nudging has been instrumental in this latest bilateral agreement to begin repatriation. The regional grouping Asean has also lent its support to the process.
Even at this late stage it is unclear whether the repatriation will in fact begin as planned. Most refugees in the camps are reluctant to commit themselves to return at this stage. It seems the move is far too rushed and ill-planned according to sources in both Bangladesh and Myanmar.
"It's been too hastily arranged and there is an acute lack of transparency," according to a Western diplomat in the region who follows closely follows events in Myanmar. "So it's no surprise there are no takers," he added.
It is exactly two weeks since the Bangladesh government gave the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) the list of 3,540 refugees that Myanmar had submitted -- with the names of those refugees that had been approved -- and asked them for their assistance in ascertaining who on the list were prepared to return.
"The views and wishes of the refugees are the most important factor in any return or repatriation process," said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok. "Eligibility for return is not the same as refugees individually deciding that they want to return," she added.
"Refugees have the right to return home. But they must have the freedom to determine when they feel the time is right for them to go back, based on an informed decision about conditions on the ground [in Rakhine]", Ms Gluck told the Bangkok Post.
According to UNHCR staff in Bangladesh, the UN organisation began what they call "an intentions survey" only three days ago. This is reportedly consultations with individual refugee families in private to determine whether they want to return. The process is ongoing and continuing, according to the agency. "However, given the numbers of refugees, this process will take time," Louise Donovan the UNHCR spokesperson in Cox's Bazar told the Bangkok Post in an email exchange.
"The refugees must be able to make a free and individual decision," she said. "During our discussions with the refugees, UNHCR will provide the available information that we have concerning conditions in Myanmar and in the areas of return. However, UNHCR is severely constrained because of the current limitations on UNHCR's access to areas in Rakhine which prevents us from fully assessing the conditions of return."
"We will not go back because we worry that we would be unsafe and insecure as the situation in Rakhine remains unstable," many refugees in the camps have told aid workers in the past few days. They also fear being forcibly returned, as has happened in previous occasions, including the UN-sponsored repatriation in the nineties.
The refugees in the camps have continuously refused to contemplate returning to Myanmar for fear of further violence. An ill-considered attempt to kick-start the process in November last year sowed further fear and confusion in the camps, and finally failed after refugee protests. Many camp residents feared that the Bangladesh authorities were trying to forcibly expel them.
The Myanmar government has been at pains to convince the refugees that the situation has changed in Rakhine. Late last month, a delegation led by the Myanmar foreign ministry's permanent secretary Min Thu also visited the camps and explained the situation in Myanmar to them, assuring them that no one would be forced to return and hailed the improved domestic situation in Rakhine: better access to education and health facilities; livelihood projects; and activities to promote social cohesion reconciliation between the various communities.
Of course, the issue of citizenship -- as most of the Muslim population have been denied citizenship for decades, despite most of them having lived in Rakhine for generations -- remains a thorny problem that still needs to be tackled head on by the Myanmar authorities. Several refugees earlier this week, insisted to camp officials that without guarantees of citizenship there is no point in returning.
But the Myanmar government has laid great stress on issuing the National Verification Certificate (NVC), which will give certain residential rights and a possible pathway to citizenship in the future under the 1982 citizenship law.
Of course both the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments have been at pains to assure the refugees that they will guarantee "a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation". But the security measures in place and whether it is safe to return are not something the UN on the ground appears ready to assess, seeing it as a bilateral matter, according to UN insiders. All the UNHCR is really concerned about, is whether the process is truly voluntary.
Sources in the camps say tension is rising as most refugees are unsure of the future, the fear is that the process may become mandatory and there are already accusations of local Bangladesh officials becoming heavy handed in their eagerness to start the repatriation process. There is a strong possibility of a repeat of last year's fiasco when buses pulled up at the camps to transport them back to Rakhine -- decked with banners in Myanmar saying welcome -- and no one got on.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have both approached Asean -- the secretariat -- and the Asean Coordinating Committee for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA) to help monitor the repatriation process. Asean remains cautious though, according to informed sources. But Asean -- especially this year under the Thai Chairmanship -- has been anxious to support Myanmar's efforts to resolve its Rakhine crisis. Members of the Asean secretariat and AHA representatives have participated in meetings between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It also earlier this year conducted a Preliminary Needs Assessment (PNA) in northern Rakhine, where the refugees are expected to be returned.
While it remains to be seen whether the repatriation begins this week, there is no doubt that Myanmar and Bangladesh have been under increased pressure -- from China and to a lesser degree Japan -- in recent months to break the impasse. China's special envoy, Sun Guoxiang has been devoting his attention to helping Myanmar solve its Rakhine problems and commence refugee repatriation. He has made several visits this year with that specific mission in mind, according to Chinese officials.
Chinese diplomats have also been working with Bangladesh behind the scenes to move the process forward. And the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, elicited China's support to solve the refugee issue when she met President Xi Jingping in Beijing during her state visit there in July.
Last week envoy Sun had separate meeting with the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army Chief Senior Min Aung Hlaing and discuss the way forward for Rakhine with them, encouraging Myanmar to start the repatriation.
Japan has also been dipping its oar into the Rakhine issue, and gently pushing both the civilian and military leaders to bite the bullet and start taking back refugees. For Tokyo though the UN has to be a central player in the process. The Japanese foreign minister on his recent visits at the end of July to Naypyidaw and Dhaka also urged the two governments to be more cooperative and find a way to start the repatriation process.
Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are heavily dependent on both China and Japan for aid, investment and trade. It seems that economic might have successfully broken the deadlock between the two countries. But regional pressure alone cannot guarantee the refugees will return to Rakhine, this week at least. The hope is that a first batch of refugees will return soon and mark the beginnings of a serious repatriation process.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.
Former BBC World Service News Editor
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News Editor for the region.