On March 12, it became known that Myanmar had agreed to repatriate 1,140 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh under a “pilot” project. On March 15, a 22-member delegation from Myanmar arrived in Teknaf, in south-eastern Bangladesh, to verify information about some of the refugees whose names had been included in the list for the pilot project.

However, the proposed repatriation plan has been subjected to strong criticism from a number of quarters, including some international non-governmental organizations – for instance, New York-based international non-profit Human Rights Watch has called upon Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plan. So, what should be the best course of action in this regard?

A protracted crisis

Bangladesh currently hosts more than 1.25 million Rohingya refugees, and thus it is the seventh largest refugee-hosting state in the world. Some of these refugees have been residing in Bangladesh for more than four decades.

The Rohingya are a Muslim-majority ethnic group native to north-eastern Rakhine State in Myanmar. They have been subjected to brutal state-sanctioned opression since 1962 and were arbitrarily deprived of citizenship in 1982. Moreover, they have faced brutal military crackdowns in 1978, 1991-’92, 2012, 2015, and 2016-’18.

In each of these cases, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to find shelter in the neighbouring Bangladesh. While 180,000 and 150,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated in 1978–’79 and 1992–’97, respectively – following diplomatic negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar – 20,000–70,000 and 50,000–100,000 refugees remained in Bangladesh on these two instances.

Bangladesh witnessed the influx of thousands of additional Rohingya refugees in 2012 and 2015, and following the brutal “clearance operation” launched by the Tatmadaw against the Rohingya in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh.

Consequently, Bangladesh – a small state with a population of 172.9 million – is now burdened with the added responsibility of managing more than 1.25 million Rohingya refugees. While Bangladesh has been earnest in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the problem and to repatriate the refugees into their country of origin since 2017, its efforts have so far made little headway owing to Myanmar’s recalcitrance and the international community’s largely indifferent attitude.

Therefore, the successful repatriation of even a very small number of refugees would be considered to be better than nothing on the part of Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees walk to a refugee camp after crossing the border in Anjuman Para near Cox's Bazar. Credit: Reuters.

Unpacking the ground reality

While the concerns of some international non-profits about the safety of the repatriated refugees are justifiable, one must look at the bigger picture to understand the situation on the ground.

First, Bangladesh has, from the very outset, faced a host of social, economic, environmental, security, and political challenges owing to the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis. It should be kept in mind that Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and so Bangladesh was not under strong legal obligations to open its borders for the fleeing Rohingya.

Despite this, Bangladesh has sheltered the Rohingya refugees and tried its best to provide them with humane living conditions with its limited resources. Moreover, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has certified, Bangladesh has strictly refrained from forcibly repatriating the Rohingya into Myanmar, thus adhering to the principle of non-refoulement. Thus, by continuing to shelter the Rohingya, Bangladesh not only demonstrates its humanitarianism, but also adheres to the international norm of the protection of refugees.

Second, the Rohingya crisis did not originate in Bangladesh. As Bangladeshi officials have repeatedly and clearly stated, it originated in Myanmar and its solution has to be found in Myanmar. The only viable solution to the Rohingya crisis is the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya back to their homeland.

According to Article 13(2) of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1(C) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and Article 12 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, every refugee has the right to return to their home country. So, the Rohingya are legally entitled to return to Myanmar.

So far, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have repeatedly expressed their desire to return to their home country, and the international community is morally duty-bound to assist them in their repatriation.

Third, Bangladesh has tried to resolve the refugee crisis within the bounds of international law and norms. Bangladesh has consistently engaged in diplomatic negotiations with Myanmar with regard to the return of the refugees.

Moreover, Bangladesh has repeatedly urged the international community, as well as the great and regional powers (including the United States, China, India and Russia) to ensure the safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya.

But while Bangladesh has duly fulfilled its international and humanitarian responsibilities by sheltering the Rohingya, the international community has not been pro-active in resolving the crisis.

Rohingya women and children rest on the sands after landing on the Lampanah beach in Indonesia's Aceh province in February. Credit: Reuters.

Fourth, while the Rohingya population in Bangladesh continues to grow, the amount of international aid for the refugees has been gradually shrinking. For instance, Bangladesh received only 49% of the required amount ($881 million) for the Rohingya from the international donors in 2022.

The World Food Program decided to slash its food aid for the Rohingya in February 2023. Thus, while Bangladesh continues to fulfil its humanitarian duty to the Rohingya, the international community is steadily losing interest in their plight, resulting in increased socio-economic and political burden for Bangladesh.

Fifth, among the great and regional powers, only China has so far undertaken some concrete efforts to resolve the crisis by mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is possible that the pilot project has raised concerns in some quarters, since the project is backed by China. However, this issue should not necessarily be viewed from the lens of geo-political competition.

As Bangladesh has repeatedly urged, other members of the international community should be more active in ensuring safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. So, the concerned actors might join the process to have a close oversight of the process and to help it.

Finally, some have argued that the current conditions in Myanmar are not suitable for the repatriation of the Rohingya. However, it should be noted that all the concerned actors, including the Myanmar military government, the opposition-controlled National Unity Government, and the ethnic Rakhine armed group Arakan Army have expressed their desire to repatriate the Rohingya.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya themselves seem willing to return to their home country. The aforementioned pilot project is admittedly a very small step in this regard. But if all sides demonstrate their goodwill and undertake proper measures, this could kick-start the process of the eventual repatriation of all Rohingya refugees. Hence, instead of obstructing the process, the concerned actors should come forward to ensure that Rohingya are repatriated into their homeland safely and with dignity.

Bangladesh has dutifully fulfilled its humanitarian and international responsibilities by sheltering the Rohingya refugees and by seeking to ensure a just resolution of the crisis. However, the international community has fallen short of their responsibilities, as exemplified by their insufficient attention to the crisis and their failure to uphold the right of the Rohingya to return to their homeland. Moreover, by slashing aid for the Rohingya, they are dooming the refugees to further privations.

However, the concerned actors in Myanmar and the Rohingya themselves are in favour of repatriation. Under such circumstances, Bangladesh has managed to start the process of Rohingya repatriation, notwithstanding its small scale.

So, instead of creating obstacles and blaming Bangladesh, the concerned international actors should come forward to ensure that this process gradually encompasses all Rohingya refugees and they can exercise their right of return to their homeland safely and with dignity.

MH Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.

This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.