Repatriation of Rohingya: Nightmare not resolution

International law should kick in to stop the community from being sent back to Myanmar, where their lives are still in danger.

WrittenBy:Aasima Banu Sheikh
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The Rohingya, who fled to Bangladesh to escape Myanmar’s militarised violence, torture and rape that flared up in August last year, are preparing for their repatriation journey.

Since September 2017, more than 7 lakh such refugees have been staying in camps at the border.

An agreement between the two nations was signed on November 23, 2017, and named ‘Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State’, instead of recognising the Rohingya Muslims as Myanmar’s ethnic minority. According to the agreement, the process was to begin by January 22, but has been postponed due to delay in registration of the besieged population by the host country.

What is notable, however, is that the Rohingya still feel unsafe returning to a place where there is no guarantee of protection for their lives.

What is the agreement all about?

Bangladesh and Myanmar formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) for repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. The JWG comprises 15 members from each country and was formed under the terms and conditions of the bilateral arrangement.

As per the deal, Myanmar has to accept 1,500 Rohingya per week with the plan of taking more than 7,00,000 of the population in two years. It plans on setting out phases, in which the Rohingya will be first placed in temporary camps between the borders and then shift to a locality under Myanmar’s authorities.

According to the agreement, the return of the population has to be voluntary and safety and dignity has to be guaranteed in the process. The JWG plans to work not only to repatriate the displaced Rohingya but also to resettle them in Rakhine state and provide support to reintegrate them in society.

But it is difficult to imagine how all this can be achieved without having transformed any of the policies for the Rohingya.

Refugees’ speak, call for justice

A group of Rohingya elders in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar refugee camp showed a report of their petition to a Reuters reporter. It listed the conditions they wanted met before the repatriation, and included demands such as citizenship, land of their origin and the Myanmar military to be charged with crimes against the community.

The military till now has issued straight denials regarding the alleged atrocities on the community and claims that whomsoever they killed were terrorists.

The Rohingya people are aware of the fact that if they return in such a situation, they will just be displaced again as they don’t have homes left and the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments are planning to house them in transit camps between the borders.

Is it a nightmare or resolution?

For the traumatised Rohingya, the repatriation plan is no less than a nightmare as conditions at their villages in Myanmar have not improved in any way – their houses and cowsheds were being destroyed in several places of Buthidaung Township and Kat Pa Kaung hamlet of Shweza Village in Maungdaw this week itself.

It is not that they do not want to go back, but it is a matter of life and death for them and repatriation guarantees only death for them. The plan to move them without any protection to life means whitewashing the crimes committed by the Myanmar regime and allowing them to act as guardians.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) reported in a statement released in December that at least 6,700 Rohingyas, including 730 children, were killed in Myanmar in the first month of the crisis. Coupled with reports of rape, trafficking and outright murder, the community lives in a defenceless situation of unspeakable atrocities. In this status quo, it is likely they will face the same atrocities and apartheid conditions if they go back.

Amnesty International has already called the repatriation plan “alarmingly premature” while Human Rights Watch has asked both Bangladesh and Myanmar to redraft the agreement involving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

What must be done

Ideally, international law should come into play. Here, the principle of non-refoulement – the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum-seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution – is the ethos of protection. Non-refoulement is the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law.  According to the article 33(1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

In other words, it reflects the commitment of the international community to ensure the right to life, right to freedom from torture, cruelty, punishment and to liberty and security of an asylum-seeker or refugee by forbidding a country from returning them to the country which is likely to cause danger of persecution.

It is a customary international law, which means regardless of states being non-party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 or its 1967 Protocol, it applies to all. So it is applicable to states like Bangladesh or India which are non-contracting states but planning to repatriate the Rohingya to the horrifying condition in Myanmar. This is where the international community should voice its stance to protect them from repeated genocide.

Bangladesh is among the poorest nations in the world, battling its own refugee crisis, yet the small country has taken in millions of Rohingya – something several other countries failed to do. In 2015, regional countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand left the Rohingya stranded in the middle of the Andaman Sea by rejecting their entry, while Australia tried to bribe the refugees at its detention centre on Manus Island, asking them to return to Myanmar.

It is necessary now that the international community conjoin and make Bangladesh shelter the Rohingya Muslims for a longer time, because as per international law they can’t be deported. Humanitarian aid must be provided and nations must come together to protect them.

The ‘Arrangement on Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State’ must be redrafted keeping in mind that the identity of the community is restored. Before repatriation, recognition is what they want. State-sponsored crime should not be turned into state-sponsored repatriation.


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