Months after thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar in the wake of mass killings, rape and arson, Bangladesh plans to send them back. On November 23, it signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar, which is said to be based on an earlier pact signed in 1992, when a similar surge of violence had sent the Rohingya fleeing across the border.
Since August 2017, about 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military. According to a statement by a Bangladeshi minister, repatriation will start in two months. Many Rohingya, crammed into refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar and still traumatised by the violence they left behind, say it is too soon to go back.
The details of the deal are still sketchy and the two countries will reportedly form a joint working committee to oversee the process. This is what is known so far.
At least initially, only the Rohingya who entered Bangladesh after October 2016 will be sent back. Crucially, the agreement refers to them as “displaced Myanmar residents”, rather than citizens. They will need to provide proof of residency with documents issued in Myanmar. Documentation provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees will also have to be verified, and Myanmar will be the final arbiter of any dispute on their validity.
According to Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali, Myanmar will settle the repatriated Rohingya in their former neighbourhoods or any place near where their homes once stood. They will not stay in temporary settlements for long.
Both governments have agreed not to discriminate against any particular community in the process, Myanmar has reportedly promised not to penalise any Rohingya for “illegal exodus and return” unless they are found to be involved in terrorist or criminal activities. After repatriation, neither government will provide citizenship or residency to “illegal immigrants”.
A publicity stunt?
Human Rights Watch called the pact a “publicity stunt” and “laughable”, while Amnesty International said it was “unthinkable” for Rohingya refugees to return at the moment. Voices of concern have also been raised in Bangladesh, but the government is not taking questions. “Our only goal is to send the Rohingya back to their country, and there is no point in criticising this agreement,” said Ali in a press briefing. But the problems with the pact are obvious.
First, it makes no space for the involvement of a third party which could have monitored or steered the process. This is an especially crucial gap since neither country’s stance inspires much confidence. Bangladesh has made no secret of wanting to get the refugee population off its soil. As for Myanmar, it has maintained a sullen denial of the atrocities in the face of mounting evidence.
Second, the pact lets Myanmar decide on the legality of the documents produced. As one migration expert pointed out, this “kills a process that could have been neutral”. Since Myanmar stands accused of systematically trying to eject Rohingya from the country and of denying them citizenship, it is debatable how many documents it will admit as valid.
Third, there are logistical problems with producing and verifying the documents. In a country that has denied Rohingya citizenship and basic rights for years, it is not known how many people have identification papers. Besides, many fled leaving everything behind so they might not have the papers even if they were issued. As former Bangladeshi ambassador M Humayun Kabir points out, most would depend on a “white card” or temporary identity certificate provided by the Myanmar government, which claimed their citizenship was in doubt. These are printed in Burmese but refugees giving their details for registration in Bangladesh often speak in Rakhine, which means names and addresses will often not match.
Fourth, the pact states that neither country will provide citizenship or residency to “illegal immigrants” once registration is complete. Given the difficulties of identification, the process is likely to leave a large number of people out. This will create a large, floating population of so-called illegal migrants left stateless once again. It should be remembered that the Myanmar government justified stripping the Rohingya of civil and political rights by claiming they were illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the first place.
Point of no return
Finally, there is the freighted question of what the Rohingya will return to. With entire villages razed to the ground, the government will need to help them rebuild their homes and lives once again. When the pact still refuses to call the Rohingya citizens of Myanmar, the government’s enthusiasm for such a project may be lacking. The provision about Myanmar penalising so called terrorists or criminals could lay the ground for a fresh campaign of persecution.
So far, their is nothing to suggest that this deal has what the 1992 agreement did not: safeguards to ensure that Myanmar’s military junta will alter its policies towards the Rohingya and not indulge in more killing sprees that will send them running for life across the border once again. With no evidence of a change of heart in the Myanmar government, this pact would only deliver the Rohingya back to their killers.