With no hope in sight to return to their homeland in Rakhine State of Myanmar, nearly one million Rohingya people, who fled to Bangladesh five years ago, are passing inhuman lives in refugee camps.
To date, not a single refugee has been repatriated since August 25, 2017, when the world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people fled the Rakhine state in one of the fastest forced movements of people in recent history.
Almost all of them fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh – now home to the world’s largest refugee camp.
A repatriation mechanism was set up by Myanmar and Bangladesh in November 2017 followed by China- brokered trilateral negotiation but things have not rolled since.
Foreign ministry's top brass admitted that despite the passage of five years they do not see any possibility to resolve the crisis very soon.
But we are working on it so that the repatriation process can start even in a symbolic manner, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told the FE.
We hope that something of this kind may be done at the end of this year, he added.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent Dhaka visit also pointed finger at the domestic situation in Myanmar while reasoning the delay in starting repatriation despite China’s involvement.
There were two failed attempts, in 2018 and 2019, to convince several thousand refugees to return, but those selected were unwilling to their homeland in the absence of sufficient Myanmar government assurances of security, access to citizenship and livelihood opportunities upon return.
Analysing the cause behind the failure, a report by the International Crisis Group, a platform of the international agencies said, even prior to Myanmar's February 2021 coup, progress on official repatriation efforts had been scant.
After the two failed attempts, the COVID-19 pandemic impaired further discussions between Bangladesh and Myanmar, which was then being governed by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
Moreover, the Myanmar government showed no signs of addressing refugees' concerns on key points, namely citizenship, security and livelihoods.
“ Naypyitaw failed to provide proper information on even the most basic questions, such as where the refugees -- many of whom came from villages that the military razed to the ground after the 2017 exodus -- would be sent after arriving at transit camps on the Myanmar side of the border” the ICG report observed.
To complicate the matter further, the Myanmar military began fighting a new war in Rakhine State against insurgents from the Arakan Army - a pro-Rakhine ethnic armed group - in Deccember 2018. The heavy fighting that raged in the state over 2019 and 2020 meant that repatriation was virtually impossible for security reasons, above and beyond the Rohingyas' other concerns.
Although Rakhine State has largely been spared the post-coup violence that has engulfed much of Myanmar since February 2021, the military's power grab has been a further setback to any prospect of repatriation.
Despite the junta's public claims that it is committed to moving ahead with the process -- likely a reflection of its desire to cultivate international approval and mitigate its post-coup isolation -- Naypyitaw shows little inclination to do more than pay lip service to repatriation efforts.
Pressure from Western governments, several Muslim countries and China (which has weighed in at Bangladesh's request) appears to have had little impact.
In January, bilateral talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh finally resumed, but little progress has been made so far. Most refugees are wary of returning to Myanmar when it is ruled by the very generals who orchestrated the 2017 violence against them.
The conflict between the Arakan Army and Myanmar army also hindered the process and Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State, where many of the refugees originated, appears to be a particular hotspot for conflict.
Located on the border with Bangladesh, the area is strategic for the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army.
“ There have been several clashes in the area in recent months; on 18 July, the insurgents ambushed a convoy of the regime's Border Guard Police, killing at least four and capturing thirteen. These events do not bode well for Rohingyas' ability to return to Rakhine State” said the ICG report.
Meanwhile, a survey by Save the Children revealed that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh continue to live in fear.
Two-thirds (66 per cent) of children surveyed and nearly all parents and caregivers (87 per cent) say they do not feel any safer now than when they arrived, the survey revealed.
The findings expose that the international community’s efforts, despite being significant, fall short of what is needed to adequately respond to the needs of Rohingya people, Save the Children said.
Humanitarian agencies said the rising cost of living globally will impact the ability of the humanitarian community to continue to provide the necessary aid to the Rohingya refugees - and that increased desperation will lead to a further increase in child marriages.
Onno van Manen, Country Director for Save the Children in Bangladesh, said, “The world may have turned its attention to other crises, but five years later, almost half a million Rohingya children are still growing up in overcrowded camps”.
They’re showing worrying signs of depression and anxiety, and, with limited access to schooling, they’re losing hope of a better life, he added.
Asia Pacific Regional Director of IFRC Mr Alexander Matheou said:
“What you see on the surface in the camps has improved over five years thanks to the work of the government of Bangladesh and multiple national and international partners.
“But below the surface, in people's lives, where the future is uncertain and there is no work or movement, there are less obvious but important risks - of depression, trafficking, violence, including gender-based violence. With no durable solutions in sight, the humanitarian response needs to focus on recreation and protection as much as lifesaving needs.”
Living conditions for the refugees are poor and worsening. Most live in Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp in the world. They have few job opportunities and little access to formal education, while crime and violence, including killings of Rohingya community leaders, are on the rise.
It is believed by many that factions within the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), have been fighting with rival groups for control of the camps.
Partly in response to this violence, Bangladesh has been imposing tighter restrictions on the refugees, including limiting their ability to come and go from the camps, gain access to the internet and mix with locals.
Almost 30,000 Rohingya people have also relocated to Bhasan Char, a small silt island in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the island, specifically to host up to 100,000 refugees.
It is admitted by all quarters that for a country that still has high levels of poverty and unemployment, hosting over a million refugees is clearly an enormous challenge, particularly for the communities hosting them in Cox's Bazar.
The rise in crime and violence in and around the camps has heightened public pressure on the Bangladeshi government to take a tougher stance.