Following a mass exodus of ethnic Rohingya fleeing a brutal military campaign in Burma in the summer and fall of 2017, rushed plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Burma have been delayed and an opportunity has opened for the two nations to step back and develop a plan that not only demonstrates greater concern for human rights, but also one which has a better chance of succeeding to create an environment where returnees will be less likely to flee again. As it stands now, the two nations have put little consideration into the rights of refugees, nor the chances of a successful repatriation. Rather, the emphasis seems to be on allowing Burma to superficially demonstrate an attempt at following global norms and standards while disregarding human rights even in that process.
The repatriation process as proposed previously would effectively rush scared, injured and desolate Rohingya back to Myanmar to live in camps for the displaced, with no plan for returning them to their own villages or homes, nor a plan to guarantee their safety or rights. The refugees expected to voluntarily return to Burma witnessed an unprecedented campaign of murder, gang rape, arson and torture against them by the same army which would guard them in an open air prison. Few human beings would do this voluntarily, and so far all indications are that Rohingya who were to be repatriated would have done so by force or coercion.
For Burma this is an opportunity to offer the appearance of attempting to bring back the Rohingya, offer empty assurances and when the refugees refuse, they can simply claim that the Rohingya prefer Bangladesh and do not wish to return. The recent military operation, based on a scorched earth policy, has clearly demonstrated that Burma engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and committed crimes against humanity. The repatriation is merely an attempt to avoid international scrutiny for these crimes.
Even now Rohingyas are fleeing and arriving in Bangladesh in January 2018. Bangladesh and Burma agreed on terms for repatriation bilaterally on 23rd November 2017. According to the International Organization for Migration’s Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) report, 623,000 Rohingya arrived in Bangladesh at that date. On 21st January 2018 ISCG reported there are a total of 688,000 Rohingya refugees who had arrived in Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugees population increased 65,000 within two months after the bilateral agreement. This clearly proves that the repatriation effort is no more than attempt to mislead the world through superficial efforts without addressing any core problems which are themselves causing and prolonging the crisis in the first place.
For Bangladesh, the motivation may be more direct, they have been overburdened by this ongoing and enormous refugee crisis since 1978, and a quick solution, even an inhumane one, would be appealing to many in power. Already there are reports from the ground that authorities are pressuring refugees to return despite their reservations. These efforts could tarnish the image that Bangladesh has achieved among the international community of a country that generously welcomed the Rohingya fleeing from genocide in Burma with open arms. But for both nations, there must eventually come an understanding that these attempts are not only inhumane, they are also foolish and ultimately self-harming. Burma has played games along these lines with the international community for decades, and the world seems to have perhaps finally grown tired of humoring them.
While repercussions against Burma for its human rights violations are limited, they have drawn a great deal of scrutiny and isolation, which carries a constant question of when the other shoe will fall and nations will begin taking stronger actions against them. Burma could avoid these problems and even enrich itself beyond anything it has ever known if its military and police simply respected human rights and ended decades of ostracizing itself from the world for an irrational commitment to brutality against civilians and disodents.
Similarly Bangladesh has repeatedly found itself reluctantly accepting mass waves of Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Burma. With each crisis, Bangladesh acknowledges that they end up suffering various burdens as a result of Burma’s aggression. Yet they have repeatedly cooperated with Burma to determine the future of those refugees, with little consideration for how it will affect the displaced, nor how it will affect Bangladesh in the long term. At times they have simply seemed to want to make their problems go away quickly, despite the harm quick solutions may cause and the likeliness the same problems will continue to occur. At the same time, Bangladesh would benefit from acknowledging Burma’s campaign of aggression and disinformation against them, in something of a small scale cold war carried out through religious proxies and military institutions. Similarly, Burma has used the issues about the Rohingya as an attack on the Bangladesh in the media and in policy.
If Burma and Bangladesh wish to genuinely solve the Rohingya exodus problems, for their benefit and to the aid of the displaced, a genuine effort is required. Such a solution must be based on input from the Rohingya themselves, the United Nation’s various agencies and the broader international community. When approached in this manner, a plan that is based on respect for human rights and concerns of the displaced can be created and implemented. And in doing this both Bangladesh and Burma can simultaneously fulfill their obligations and relieve their own burdens.