The Prils of Repatriation for Rohingya Refugees

Saqib Sheikh | 01 November 2022
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Myanmar’s main goal is to ease tensions with neighboring Bangladesh, not to show genuine respect for human rights

The Rohingya people forced out of the homeland remain at the mercy of the geopolitics of host countries in the region, with potentially worrying implications. 

Bangladesh faces an election in 2023 and the issue of the Rohingya is seen as important for the government to allay concerns of its electorate about the sustainability of meeting the needs of such a large refugee population, and also perceived frictions with locals.

The Bangladeshi government reached an agreement in 2017 with the Myanmar authorities to repatriate the more than half a million refugees who made an exodus to Cox’s Bazar after assaults by the military in their homeland. However, any mass repatriation has yet to militarize, with the coup in Myanmar in 2021 in effect halting the return of even the tiny numbers of refugees who were approved for repatriation.

Complicating matters further are the recent cross-border artillery strikes by the Myanmar military in pursuit of the Arakan Army, to which the Bangladeshi authorities gave a stern response.

Bangladesh has now indicated that the military regime in Myanmar, with the encouragement of China as a regional stakeholder, is willing to restart the repatriation process. The United Nations has made its own position very clear, that such a repatriation process must be “voluntary, safe and dignified.” However, given the tremendous political pressures facing Bangladesh, the concern now is, if the repatriation process is revived, what form will it take? 

If the Myanmar authorities do somehow agree to take in some numbers of Rohingya, it is highly unlikely that given the ongoing fighting in Rakhine state that they will be able to return to their ancestral villages, many of which have been bulldozed.

The returning Rohingya will also certainly be pressured to register under the National Verification Card (NVC) system, a condition of which is to agree to be categorized as a “Bengali foreigner,” in effect erasing their own ethnic identity. 

In other words, rather than a full repatriation process that conforms to human-rights norms, what could potentially materialize is for Myanmar simply to re-absorb a manageable number of Rohingya, while failing to reinstate any citizenship status for them or offering them a limited status at best, and in effect coercing them to live in scattered numbers in other parts of the country but not as one collective people in their land of origin.

The goal of such an exercise would not be a matter of accountability but just to reduce friction on the border with Bangledesh and continue with the exclusion of the Rohingya from the civic space of the country, particularly with democracy being suspended. 

The international community can play a more positive role by paying attention to ongoing repatriation efforts and giving a strong voice to ensure that such processes abide by what the United Nation has previously highlighted as protection of the well-being of the Rohingya. 

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia. 

This article was originally published on Asia Times.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.