Repatriation Pilot Program: Relief for The Rohingyas or Exacerbation of Their Pain?

Marzana Mahnaz | 18 August 2023
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Imagine being forcibly uprooted from your homeland, where you have lived all your life, without any legal justification or prior notice, and driven to seek refuge in a foreign land where your mere existence is viewed as a burden. Most people around the world show sympathy about the whole situation and your life becomes one of the most critical global issues. But no matter how frequently the issue comes up in the world news, the solution to your problems never seems to come. This appears to be unimaginable and terrifying right? As we read and think about this horrifying situation in our comfort places, the Rohingya Refugees at the Cox’s Bazar camps are living this nightmare day after day for year after year.

The Rohingya crisis began in Myanmar's Rakhine state in 2017 when a violent military crackdown forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee their homes. The situation of the Rohingya refugees has drawn tremendous compassion and concern from people all around the world. Despite extensive coverage in worldwide media, a long-term solution to their difficulties has been elusive since their banishment from the Rakhine state. But after years of uncertainty about their return, the Rohingyas may have received some hope to return to their homeland when the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming made a bold prediction about The Rohingya Repatriation Pilot Program. Since the beginning of the issue, China has favored bilateral solutions over making it a high priority in international fora. China is bringing Myanmar and Bangladesh to the negotiating table in this context, and it is hoped that the country's considerable sway over Myanmar would result in a positive outcome. If the pilot program is successful, this tripartite initiative will be applauded and appreciated by the global community. However, the major concern of the pilot program is the Rohingya community, so the big question is would the repatriation be successful enough to restore the liberty and security of the refugees rather than just fleeing them from one hell to another? 

On March 10, 2023, a delegation of ambassadors from Bangladesh, India, and China visited Rakhine to assess the newly established camps and villages as part of the repatriation program. During the visit, some Rohingya individuals were offered the opportunity to see the conditions in Rakhine firsthand. However, after their visit, these individuals expressed reservations about returning to Rakhine. Human Rights Watch interviewed five Rohingya refugees who participated in the go-and-see visit. According to their accounts, the conditions they experienced resembled detention, and they were deprived of full citizenship rights, making it unsafe for them to consider returning. The Myanmar government gave the touring delegation team a booklet named “Facts on the Arrangement of the Myanmar Government for Reception and Resettlement of Displaced Persons on their Return under the Pilot Project” which referenced the NVC’s National Verification Cards (NVCs) issued in Myanmar, but they do not confer citizenship rights to the Rohingya people. The Rohingya community has overwhelmingly rejected the NVC process as they believe it designates them as foreigners in their homeland which can result in significant restrictions on their freedom of movement. Another considerable fact about the repatriation program is that after the military coup of 2021 in Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is leading a brutal military junta that targets civilian populations while denying Rohingya citizenship and other basic rights which created the issue in the first place. In these circumstances sending them back to Myanmar raises questions about their civil and human rights.  

The Bangladesh government sheltered the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds. But keeping them at the camps of Cox's Bazar and providing them with a good livelihood is getting unattainable every day which is why the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission is eager to make this pilot project work and even if it does not work Bangladesh is ready to take back the refugees on the humanitarian grounds. However, Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, expressed concerns about reports of Bangladeshi authorities employing deceptive and coercive tactics to force Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar. Bangladesh has been forceful with the refugees who are showing resistance to the government plan of the pilot program. The Rohingyas are also bribed large sums of money for their acceptance and approval to return to Rakhine state. Andrews also emphasized that the conditions in Myanmar are not suitable for the safe, dignified, sustainable, and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees. This throws the good and humanitarian side of the Bangladesh government in shambles and points out the desperation of Bangladesh getting rid of the problem. 

While the Bangladesh government may have some justification for their desperation, as the problem places strain on the country's economic sector, why is China backing up the deal so keenly? What is China’s motivation here? China has always saved Myanmar from the human rights watch and the international community in the Rohingya crisis. The justification behind China’s keen interest in the pilot program is that China has a vested interest in regional stability due to the proximity of the northern part of Rakhine State, where many Rohingya refugees will reside when the pilot program gets launched, to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The CMEC represents a strategic network of infrastructure projects aimed at linking China's Yunnan province with Myanmar's coastal areas. Therefore, ensuring stability in the region aligns with China's economic objectives. Apart from the Rakhine state, China also has interests in Myanmar’s Arakan region. The Arakan region has been experiencing instability for a long time, and the way the conflict situation has developed there, it is in China’s best interest that the environment gets stable there.

The Rohingyas, the world's largest population of stateless refugees, have endured prolonged suffering, violence, and lack of citizenship. While the repatriation program aims to restore their dignity, human rights, liberty, and citizenship, it may inadvertently give rise to new challenges, potentially exacerbating their existing struggles as stateless individuals. 

Marzana Mahnaz is a Research Intern at the Centre for Governance Studies.

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.