Navigating Security Concerns and Repatriation: The Journey of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh
The repatriation of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar is a sensitive issue, shrouded with security concerns and mistrust. Successive Myanmar governments are complicit in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims through decades of systemic discrimination and mass ethnic violence since 2017. Recent talks of repatriating asylum seekers based in Bangladesh have been met with scepticism from the international community and the Rohingya themselves.
Around 919,000 Rohingya refugees live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – the largest refugee camp in the world (UNHCR). They predominantly fled from Myanmar in 2017 after the outbreak of violence in the Rakhine State.
Before then, many Rohingya migrated due to institutionalised discrimination perpetrated by Myanmar authorities. The Rohingya lived under strict restrictions controlling marriage, family planning, employment, education, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement (HRW). Rakhine state, the home region of Rohingya Muslims, has a poverty rate of more than double the national average (CFR).
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations and represent a major demographic. Despite this, authorities have historically denied them official citizenship and revoked their rights to participate in elections, making them the world’s largest stateless group.
Following armed clashes between Myanmar authorities and the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Rohingya civilians experienced indiscriminate violence. Entire villages were burnt to the ground and gender-based violence occurred at an alarming rate (UN). The UNHCR stated that the Myanmar military demonstrated a “flagrant disregard for human life” and cited genocide and crimes against humanity (UN). Between August and September 2017, 6,700 Rohingya were killed (MSF).
Decades of marginalisation and the inhumane treatment suffered by the Rohingya have catalysed the growth of armed groups such as ARSA, Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and the Arakan Rohingya Army (ARA). These groups aim to secure a stronghold in the Rakhine state and have access to a large group of motivated and bereaved potential enlistees.
Plans to repatriate Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar have grown ever more doubtful following an increase in civil strife in the country, caused by the 2021 military coup. Rohingya refugees fear being returned to the very country where military officials responsible for their plight, now serve in government positions.
Dialogue on repatriation between Myanmar and Bangladesh was renewed as Myanmar announced a delegation was interviewing up to one thousand potential Rohingya returnees. Many of those interviewed criticised the process for lacking transparency and failing to address their concerns.
Indeed, a general criticism of the repatriation process has been the lack of consultation between the Myanmar government and the Rohingya. This failure to address safety concerns has been a major impediment to the process.
The voluntariness of the repatriation process has come under scrutiny as reports of forced repatriations have surfaced. The international community has been explicit that the reluctance of individuals to return to Myanmar must not be met with coercion. By doing so, Bangladesh could violate international laws of nonrefoulement.
International attempts at reconciliation, including the memorandum of understanding of 2019, have largely been undermined by the insecurity felt by Rohingya.
The Myanmar government has taken some small steps forward in the repatriation process, but they have proven meaningless.
In August 2020, the government announced the establishment of a transit camp for Rohingya returnees. However, Myanmar’s record has stoked fears that this temporary shelter, capable of housing 30,000 people, could become a permanent camp.
A major legal challenge in repatriating Rohingya refugees lies in their stateless status. As a group lacking citizenship (or any guarantee of acquiring it upon return), the Myanmar government may deny its duty to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims, as it has done in the past; many Rohingya will not willingly return without such a guarantee.
Thus far, attempts to repatriate Rohingya Muslims have proven fruitless and will seemingly continue to be so unless the Myanmar government takes the initiative to address insecurity in Rakhine state, ongoing domestic human rights abuses, and the concerns of the Rohingya community.
The patience and generosity of the Bangladeshi government will likely only extend so far, so in the theoretical scenario of the Rohingya’s repatriation, all efforts must be concentrated on creating adequate conditions in the Rakhine state. This would involve an unnegotiable ceasefire between warring parties and concessions made by the Myanmar government.
As armed groups expand and secure a stronger footing in Rakhine state, the repatriation of Rohingya to their rightful home remains challenging. The Arakan Army – backed by 30,000 soldiers – is demanding independence in the Rakhine state and to be recognised as the official authority. The repatriation process and the security of the state will be determined by the approach the Myanmar government takes in response to these demands.
Meanwhile, overcrowding, disease, exposure to environmental hazards, and limited access to clean water, food and health services define everyday life for Rohingya Muslims living in Cox’s Bazar. Until a meaningful reconciliation is reached, the Rohingya will continue to face an uncertain future and the challenges of living in Bangladeshi refugee camps.