The failure of the international community to enforce favourable conditions for the safe return home of the Rohingya refugees has once again highlighted its incompetence against state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.
The Rohingya Muslims are an ethnic minority in Myanmar from the north-west state of Rakhine, bordering Bangladesh. Following decades of persecution, they fled from their homes and hearth and are living in neighbouring countries as stateless refugees.
Upon its independence in 1948, Myanmar failed to unite its ethnically and racially divided population into a single national entity. This triggered several savage conflicts which continue unabated till date. The Rohingyas had been promised autonomy but the government backtracked. Rebuffed and denied citizen rights, Rohingya rebelled in 1950 but were crushed by the military. Since then they have fled to neighbouring countries.
The current crisis of refugees stranded in Bangladesh has its origin in the 2016 crackdown by Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) supported by extremist Buddhists. The provocation was a series of attacks on border police camps by Rohingya insurgents. As a consequence, more than 700,000 Rohingyas fled across the porous border into Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while speaking at the UN General Assembly, informed the world body that her country was hosting 1.1 million Rohingyas. Bangladesh has now formally closed its borders to any new influx.
India is reported to be home to about 40,000 Rohingyas.
Overcrowded into primitive makeshift camps, the refugees live in horrible conditions. They lack access to services, education, food, clean water, and proper sanitation and are vulnerable to natural disasters and infectious diseases.
Under international pressure, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an MOU in November 2017 for repatriation of the Rohingyas back to Rakhine State. UNHCR constituted a joint working group to facilitate the process and to ensure the safe return of the refugees. It was agreed that returnees would be kept in temporary camps near their abandoned homes for a short time while their identity/citizenship papers were quickly prepared. In June 2018, another MOU was signed by the United Nations and the government of Myanmar regarding the same.
The agreement was immediately criticised and rejected by Rohingya leaders, who claimed that it did not address the concerns of their community.
The major obstacle in the return of Rohingyas is the impasse in their citizenship status. More pressingly, they continue to be denied citizenship by Myanmar on the basis of the discriminatory Citizenship Law of 1982 which has been compounded by the introduction of the National Verification Card (NVC).
The Myanmar government, under its 1982 Citizenship Law, has formally recognised only 135 ethnic groups as truly indigenous and meriting grant of citizenship. These groups settled in Myanmar before 1824, that is before the British Raj. According to the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, a London-based Rohingya advocacy organisation, "despite generations of residence in Myanmar, the Rohingya are not considered to be amongst these official indigenous races and are thus effectively excluded from full citizenship."
Despite being a member of the Joint Working Group supervising the return of the Rohingyas, UNHCR has been banned from visiting Rakhine state, and hence could not verify the conditions the Rohingya would return to. There are fears that they would be placed in newly built transit camps, which have been described as nothing more than “open-air prisons”. Their original villages, which were almost all burned to the ground during the violence, have not been rebuilt as yet to shelter the returnees.
China, a close ally of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, has come up with a pragmatic three-phase proposal The proposal which entails political consultation and dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh on an equal footing to find a way to properly settle the refugees, ensure peace and stability in Rakhine as well as promote poverty alleviation and development there.
It has become increasingly clear that the prevailing environment in Myanmar creates a significant impediment to the refugees' safe and voluntary return. Human rights activists decry the “immunity” enjoyed by military officials who have been behind the persecution of the Rohingyas, despite the conclusion of the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar blaming senior Army officers for excesses committed. They also lament the lack of punitive economic measures instituted by the international community. The Rohingya themselves are far from blameless. Multiple insurgent groups within the ethnic community have long caused havoc in the region, few of which continue even now to take the law into their own hands. For instance, in January 2019, armed insurgents of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) ambushed a border guard post in the northern part of Rakhine.
Rohingya refugee camps are potential breeding grounds for extremist activities. It would only take a small percentage to be radicalised for a major security problem to manifest itself in this volatile region.
- With conditions in Rakhine state still volatile, and with Myanmar’s refusal to guarantee a pathway to citizenship for the Rohingya, the consensus is that the refugees remain too fearful to go back. Any successful repatriation effort will necessitate watertight guarantees for their safety, options and rights.
- The temporary ceasefire called for by Myanmar’s military covering Kachin and Shan states is undermined by the conflict in Rakhine and Chin states and will add to the overall turmoil in Myanmar. With these continued disturbances, the all-powerful military will resist changes to the citizenship laws.
- As a special incentive to neighbouring countries to take in refugees, the EU's Generalise Scheme of Preferences Plus could act as a model. This model slashes tariffs to 0% for vulnerable low and lower-middle-income countries that implement 27 international conventions related to human rights include acceptance of refugees. However, chances of success of such a scheme in the demographically stressed South Asia appears remote.
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