The uncertainty over the repatriation of about 1.2 million Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar is costing Bangladesh dearly. The two districts of Cox's Bazar and Bandarban that have been providing temporary shelter to most of the refugees face severe demographic and economic burden as well as environmental vulnerabilities, significantly affecting the local people's life and livelihood.
Ever since the influx of Rohingya refugees in 2017 escaping state-led atrocities in Myanmar, the demographic picture of the southernmost parts of Chattogram division has altered markedly generating a host of problems. According to a report of Policy Research Institute (PRI), owing to refugee activities at least 100 hectares of croplands in Teknaf-Ukhiya region were damaged and about 4,818 acres of reserve forest destroyed. Excess demand for essentials has escalated prices markedly, whereas wage level has subdued substantially resulting in the rise of headcount poverty rates, primarily in Teknaf and Ukhiya. The region's social sector, notably health and education, is ill-equipped to provide services even to the local population.
Apart from the adverse impact on the host community, there are limited employment opportunities for the working-age group of refugees, and their children's access to education is also limited. A report shows that almost half of the .54 million refugee children under the age of 12 are missing out on education.
A rough estimate shows that it would take one and a half decades to repatriate all the refugees if some 300 Rohingyas can return to Myanmar per day, as per the repatriation deal that Bangladesh and Myanmar signed in 2017. The estimate is based on the current stock of refugees (1.2 million) and a conservative two per cent population growth. Under the deal, a maximum of 90,000 refugees could repatriate in a year.
The cost of delay in the repatriation of Rohingya refugees is staggering. A PRI estimate suggests that considering the refugee population alone, the annual cost of food, shelter, education, and other basic needs would be a minimum of $1,219 per refugee. The cumulative amount required to support refugees for a few years could be as high as $12 billion. Under the most optimistic scenario based on a faster repatriation process, the cost would be about $3.0 billion.
This sum is clearly beyond the means of Bangladesh government. It is a daunting task even for the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations to raise such a huge fund. Barely 60 per cent of the estimated amount of $1.0 billion (by UN Joint Response Plan) for the first year was actually disbursed. Estimated requirement for 2019 is $920.5 million. Creeping donor fatigue could be a serious problem if the Rohingya crisis drags on leaving Bangladesh with the rising share of the financial burden.
In the absence of a clear refugee repatriation plan, there is a risk of social and political unrest in the region. There are reports of infighting among the Rohingyas as well as clashes between local people and the refugees. International experience suggests that refugee influx potentially threatens the national security of host countries.
The mounting economic and social burden on the host country and the displaced Rohingya people's right to return to their home necessitates a clear repatriation plan. Several countries and international and regional entities are working with Naypyidaw to find an acceptable solution in this regard. The deal that the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments signed in 2017 has not at all facilitated the repatriation process. According to the deal, repatriation should have begun by January 2018 and completed within two years. Dhaka blames Naypyidaw for the latter's unwillingness to make the plan operational.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed extension of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Myanmar for one year aimed at creating conducive conditions for voluntary and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingyas from Bangladesh.
While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) policy of non-interference has benefited Myanmar initially as Naypyidaw was not made accountable for its atrocities to the Rohingya minority, the country can no longer insist that this is an internal affair as thousands of Rohingyas from Arakan have fled to neighbouring countries. Consequently, one notices ASEAN's involvement in the potential repatriation process. Given the changing circumstances, some accuse Myanmar of playing for time by choosing to bring in ASEAN which appears less sympathetic to the cause of the Rohingyas than the West or the United Nations.
The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) conducted a need assessment report considering four major components of the Voluntary Repatriation Framework: physical safety, material safety, registration process, and social cohesion. The report which was leaked to the media ahead of formal circulation has been subject to much criticism as the narratives of the Myanmar government allegedly influenced it. However, the need assessment of AHA is based on half a million refugees. The report shows that if Myanmar were to manually process refugees based on its current capacity, 300 a day, then it would take six years to complete the process. An automated process, nonetheless, could cut down the time one-third.
Myanmar's two large neighbours China and India are critical in addressing the stalemate in the repatriation process; both Beijing and New Delhi provided it assistance to build houses for the returning refugees. Given China's substantial influence over Myanmar government, its role is believed to be the key to convince Myanmar to facilitate quick repatriation.
Lately, the United States has taken a tough stance on the Rohingya issue creating pressure on Naypyidaw. In the latest development, Washington imposed sanctions against Myanmar's top military officials who are allegedly responsible for extrajudicial killings of Rohingyas in northern Rakhine. There is also a proposal by a US Congressman of bringing the Rakhine state of Myanmar under Bangladesh. The idea which has been dismissed by Bangladesh could nonetheless exert significant pressure on Myanmar, facilitating the return of the displaced Rohingya population.
Looking ahead, Bangladesh which has been absorbing the full brunt of the Rohingya refugee crisis is not in a position to shoulder further burden of economic, social and environmental costs. Thus speedy repatriation is the only way forward. While the repatriation is on the card, Myanmar's policy to buy time is delaying the process. The Rohingyas themselves are not willing to return to Rakhine unless their basic rights are ensured and conditions on the ground are improved. Any half-hearted attempt not recognising the root causes of the crisis may not be useful to solve it. Thus all the stakeholders negotiating with Myanmar on the refugee repatriation should note the Annan Commission Report which, if followed, could ensure lasting peace in Rakhine.
M. Shahidul Islam is a doctoral candidate at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), China, and research fellow at the Policy Research Institute (PRI), Bangladesh.
Views expressed in the article are personal.