Myanmar has announced that the government was able to successfully repatriate the first five Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled the region when violence broke out.
However, both the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations have noted that such claims are false. The lives of 700,000 refugees still hang in the balance.
A fresh bout of violence erupted in Myanmar on August 25th, 2017 and over 620,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the region as a direct result. Those who fled the region under dangerous circumstances have since claimed that the nation’s armed forces were involved in activities such as burning homes and attacking women and children. The government and the military of Myanmar have denied such claims.
The international community has expressed its concern over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and the escalating violence. For the first time in eight years, the UN held its first public meeting on the situation. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the violence in the region has "spiraled into the world's fastest-developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare." He added, “We've received bone-chilling accounts from those who fled, mainly women, children and the elderly.”
Most of the Rohingya Muslim refugees fled to Bangladesh where many now reside in refugee camps. They have since spoken out about the gruesome violence that they managed to escape by braving dangerous journeys. Rakhine State occupies the northern coastline of Myanmar up to the border with Bangladesh and corresponds to the historical Kingdom of Arakan. Doctors without Borders have revealed that at least 9,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed between August and September due to this violence.
Who are the Rohingya Muslims?
The Rohingya community of Myanmar is an ethnic Muslim minority group that has constantly faced human rights abuses by the Burmese regime. The regime has refused to acknowledge them as Burmese citizens, despite having resided in the country for over three generations. The Rohingya have been denied Burmese citizenship since the enactment of a 1982 citizenship law. In the past, the regime has tried to forcibly expel Rohingya and bring in non-Rohingyas to replace them, which has resulted in the eviction of approximately half of the Rohingya population from Myanmar.
The United Nations has previously expressed concerns against immediate repatriation of the 700,000 people who have fled Myanmar. The organization has noted that it would not be secure as the region is still vulnerable to violence. However, Myanmar has announced that it has successfully repatriated the first Rohingya family.
“The five members of a family ... came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state this morning,” said a statement posted to the Facebook page of the government’s information committee.
However, these claims have been refuted by the Bangladeshi government. In fact, the Bangladeshi Government and the United Nations refugee agency have disputed Myanmar's claim. The UN has stated that neither the government of Bangladesh nor the aid agency had any involvement in any such repatriation.
Separately, Andrea Giorgetta from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) told AFP that the repatriation announcement is "a public relations exercise in an attempt to deflect attention from the need for accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine State". "Before proceeding with the repatriation of Rohingya, the Myanmar government must recognise and guarantee all their fundamental human rights," he told the news agency.
Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladeshi home minister has also stated that these claims are false. He noted that Myanmar’s announcement was no more “but a farce.” "I hope Myanmar will take all the Rohingya families back within the shortest possible time," he said.
Zaw Htay, who is a spokesman for the Myanmar Government has noted that these repatriations are not government funded propaganda. He said that the family in question decided to come back to the region of their own volition. "We are taking care of them," he added.
Our assessment is that a rushed repatriation could result in further violence and loss of life in the region of Rakhine. In January, reports emerged that the government fired on Buddhist protestors in the region. Many of the refugees who fled Rakhine undertook life threatening journeys to escape the Myanmar and their trust in the government and the military is broken. It is unlikely that a rushed repatriation will be successful unless the government is able to convince them of their safety.
There are other concerns as well. Even if the refugees are repatriated, it remains to be seen if they will be able to co-exist with other communities after the violence of 2017. There are also concerns that additional violence towards Rohingya Muslims could result in the extremist points of view and more hostility within Myanmar.
Read more: The future of Rohingya refugees