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Unpacking the politics of Rohingya repatriation

Authors: Justine Chambers and Gerard McCarthy, ANU

On 23 November, an agreement was reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya exodus from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State now numbers almost one million people. More than 620,000 arrived in Bangladesh over the last three months following brutal military ‘clearance operations’ targeting a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The agreement reached last week raises fundamental questions about the viability of repatriation in the absence of a genuine path to social and political integration.

The flight of Rohingya since August 2017 constitutes the largest movement of people in mainland Southeast Asia since the Indochinese crisis in the 1970s. Both the United Nations and the United States have declared the treatment of Rohingya people to be an example of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Fearful of the international community invoking the ‘responsibility to protect’ in response to these alleged war-crimes, Myanmar’s civilian government has reinforced their commitment to repatriation up to the rate of 100–150 people per day.

Leaving aside the fact that repatriation at this rate would take more than 10 years to complete, the viability of this agreement is challenged by the repeated unwillingness of the Myanmar military to support the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission. One of the central planks of that report — which was commissioned by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi — is the need for a path to citizenship and political inclusion for Myanmar’s Rohingya community.

Since General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, successive military governments have framed themselves as the protectors of Myanmar’s official ‘national races’ ideology which fuses indigeneity and legal citizenship. Over time the Rohingya have become the target of legal discrimination and social exclusion — they are labelled ‘illegal Bengalis’ and ‘terrorists’. This is a process enabled by the 1982 Citizenship Act which effectively renders them stateless.

Despite the transition to partial civilian rule in 2011, Myanmar’s military constitutionally retains control over the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Border Affairs, which are the operative ministries in the context of the current crisis. As a result, even though Myanmar’s civilian leaders have committed to implementing the recommendations of the Annan Commission, the military has continued to rebuff the idea, as it challenges the official conception of ‘national races’ of which the military frames itself as guardian.

These civil–military tensions were exposed most dramatically in late October during the first attempt to negotiate a deal on repatriation with Bangladesh. Despite initial indications from Myanmar’s civilian leaders that the agreement would include a commitment to the Annan Commission recommendations, the clause was removed from the document presented to the Bangladesh representative by Myanmar’s Minister for Home Affairs. As a result, only agreements on security and border cooperation were initially signed.

The latest agreement on repatriation makes mention of the Annan Commission but does not mention a path to citizenship for the Rohingya. Myanmar’s civilian Minister for Social Welfare has described plans to repatriate refugees initially to camps and later to ‘model villages’ with the support of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, India and China. But it is unclear if Annan’s recommendations on citizenship and political inclusion will be actioned.

Even if repatriation could assure safety for refugees, proving prior residency in Myanmar as required by the agreement could be difficult for those who were never issued residency documentation or lost it while fleeing the latest violence. These tensions raise serious questions about the viability of a voluntary repatriation process.

There are currently over one million Rohingya refugees living in the south-eastern districts of Cox’s Bazaar and Teknaf in makeshift settlement camps, where disease and malnutrition are rife. Non-governmental organisations providing aid to the latest influx of Rohingya have emphasised that the humanitarian need — especially in basic water, sanitation and healthcare infrastructure — is immense.

In the initial wake of the latest Rohingya exodus, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with refugees and committed to providing protection in the short-term. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor to its 1967 Protocol. Indeed, in an attempt to avoid legal obligations, Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya as ‘refugees’, instead using the nomenclature ‘forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens’. Bangladesh’s official policy towards the Rohingya since August has emphasised repatriation. But even if some refugees elect to exercise their right to return, there is little evidence to suggest that the appropriate protection mechanisms will be put in place to secure citizenship, basic rights and protection from further violence and persecution.

Other solutions beyond repatriation must therefore be considered. Over the last two decades, refugee advocates have stressed the need to focus on integration in host contexts. While local integration has been rebuffed by the Bangladeshi Government, the large settlements of Rohingya people already living in the surrounding areas mean that informal integration is already occurring.

Cox’s Bazar is not only a densely populated district, but one of the poorest regions in the country. Competition for space and resources is escalating. International assistance to strengthen healthcare, housing and education capacity in the Cox’s Bazaar region is essential to offset these strains and improve outcomes for both local people and refugees.

Third-country resettlement mechanisms also need to be considered. If only a fraction of Rohingya take the option of exit through people-smuggling networks, a regional refugee crisis far larger than 2015 is likely. A joint resettlement mechanism, possibly coordinated through ASEAN, is essential. Caught between Bangladesh and Myanmar, legitimate alternatives are needed for Rohingya unconvinced by repatriation.

Justine Chambers and Gerard McCarthy are the Associate Directors of the Myanmar Research Centre and doctoral candidates at the Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific. They tweet at @Jchambers0000 and @gerardtmccarthy.

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