Rohingya repatriation in the doldrums

Syed Jamaluddin | Published: April 15, 2018 20:53:24 | Updated: April 17, 2018 21:15:20

Our Prime Minister has recently said that there has been virtually no progress in repatriation of the Rohingyas although Bangladesh has been making various efforts. A deal has been signed with Myanmar. Their ministers already visited Bangladesh and saw the sufferings of the displaced Rohingyas. Bangladesh has done the biometric registration of over one million Rohingyas, including some 700,000 who fled atrocities in Myanmar's Rakhine state since August 25 last year.

Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of immense socio-economic and environmental consequences in Cox's Bazar. International experts fear that there remains uncertainty over repatriation as conditions for Rohingya return are not conducive. Myanmar authorities have reportedly been bulldozing the burnt Rohingya villages and the vegetation while building security installations and rehabilitating ethnic Rakhines in the places once owned by the Rohingyas.

Although Rohingyas want guarantee for citizenship and UN-controlled safe zone in Rakhine for them, Myanmar said they built temporary camps for housing the returnee Rohingyas before they are settled in their own homes. Under such circumstances, international community, too, is skeptical about a safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingyas, who have been denied citizenship and other basic rights in Myanmar since 1982.

Rohingya repatriation was supposed to begin on January 23 as per an understanding and 'instrument' signed between two countries. But just a week before that, Myanmar raised a condition stipulating that they want family-wise list of Rohingyas in prescribed form. Accordingly, the Bangladesh authorities prepared the family-wise list and handed over one such list of 8,032 Rohingyas to Myanmar on February 16. Myanmar authorities, however, in mid-March sent back a list of 556 after checking and said that only these people were eligible to return. But none could indicate the timeframe of their return. Myanmar said that verification forms received from Bangladesh were not the ones agreed by the both sides and that the forms were not properly filled in.

This seems to be Myanmar's trick to duck pressure from international community. PM's International Affairs Adviser Dr Gowher Rizvi called for re-imposition of sanctions against Myanmar. He said nothing will happen without pressure. Rohingyas will not go back if they do not feel secure in Myanmar. If Myanmar can get away, there will be no security for the minorities across in the world. He called for extraordinary international support for the Rohingyas.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is negotiating separate agreements with Bangladesh and Myanmar to ensure that Rohingya repatriation complies with international standards. He said that it would have been ideal to sign a tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, Myanmar and the UNHCR. As it did not happen, the UNHCR is trying to remedy the situation by signing two separate agreements.

Rohingya crisis will get prominence as foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries are scheduled to arrive in Bangladesh for a May 5-6 conference. This is the 45th meeting of OIC Foreign Ministers. A visit to the makeshift camps in Cox's Bazaar sheltering Rohingyas from Myanmar will be organised for the head of delegations and international organisations. Bangladesh is mulling relocation of 100,000 Rohingyas at Bhashan Char. The navy is filling in the low-lying areas and building embankments around the entire perimeter to ensure the island can resist tidal flooding and monsoon storms. The UN resident coordinator told the media that any relocation must be voluntary and conducted safely and with dignity.

The PM on April 6 invited the UN Secretary General to visit Bangladesh to see for himself the plight of Rohingyas. She placed the invitation when the UN chief phoned her at night. During their conversation, the PM sought UN cooperation in implementing the agreement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the Rohingya repatriation. The PM also thanked the UN Secretary General for taking Rohingya issue to the Security Council.

Rohingya repatriation issue has now been confined to writing letters. The repatriation process has become extremely slow. Myanmar appears to be unwilling to take back the Rohingyas. Bangladesh is keeping in touch with Myanmar and the UN. One Myanmar minister has visited Bangladesh of late. He also visited Cox's Bazar to see the Rohingya camps. Dhaka is preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding with the UNHCR. the government is giving priority to give Rohingyas shelter in safe places because of likely natural disasters in this monsoon season.

The main obstacle to repatriation is the lack of security arrangement for Rohingyas in their homeland. Rohingyas have been informed about staying in temporary camps before returning to their respective homes. China and India are expected to provide assistance in setting up the camps. The Kofi Annan report  also recommended the return of all rights to Rohingyas, but Myanmar does not appear to be sincere about implementation of the Kofi Annan report.

Rohingya infiltration is still on. Nobody knows when this trend will stop. It was agreed that repatriation will begin within two months of signing the agreement. But five months have already elapsed - there is no indication of Rohingya repatriation. The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government health departments are worried about looking after the Rohingyas' health problems. They are also being provided with accommodation, food, clothes, utensils etc. Bangladesh stands ready to repatriate the Rohingyas, but Myanmar seems reluctant. Only big powers can help break the ice. Hence, Dhaka seeks support of the big powers for return of the Rohingyas, who are now a burden on Bangladesh's economy.

Syed Jamaluddin is an economist and columnist.

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