Destroyed villages and political turmoil keep Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

After 650,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh in a span of five months, the two Asian governments attempted a plan to repatriate members of the Muslim minority community. This plan for involuntary return to Rakhine province has had little success.  Meanwhile, the NGOs accuse Myanmar of genocide and call for referral to the International Criminal Court.

In another attempt at reconciliation, Myanmar and the United Nations reached a non-binding memorandum of understanding  (MoU) in June 2018 that promotes voluntary repatriation at some point in the future. As of now, the UN says that return to Rakhine State is still unsafe.

According to a press release from the United Nations and reports from other news sources, the MoU allows some 700,000 Rohingya now refugees in Bangladesh and additional IDPs (internally displaced persons) to return to Rakhine State, the province the Rohingya fled in mass in 2017. (UN press release, NPR, Reuters.)

Much of the infrastructure necessary for repatriation of Rakhine was destroyed during the military incursion against the Rohingya. But the MoU obligates the parties to create “conditions conducive to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns from Bangladesh, and their reintegration in the country.”

A Rohingya representative was not consulted in theSupplemented “Postponed” section with “land  grab” process of reaching the MoU, according to an oral report by U.N. Special Reporter Yanghee Lee to UNHRC in June. There apparently is no timetable for the parties to enter a formal agreement or for the Rohingyas’ return to Rakhine.

The parties have not formally made the MoU available to the public. But a report by Reuters claims to have viewed the MoU. The Reuters report states the MoU does not allow for citizenship of repatriated Rohingya nor their freedom of movement outside Rakhine.

Repatriation postponed before

A repatriation process was supposed to begin in January 2018 but was postponed. As Bangladesh struggles to cope with the wave of migrants, there are persistent fears that Rohingya refugees could be coerced into returning to Myanmar despite the threat of persecution from military and civilian actors (The Guardian).

Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, Abul Kalam, did not provide a date for repatriation in January.

“The main thing is that the process has to be voluntary,” said Kalam, adding that transit camps had yet to be built in Bangladesh.

The repatriation plan Myanmar and Bangladesh reached earlier this  year called for 300 refugees per day to return to Myanmar on a volunteer basis, the BBC reported.

Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh compiled a set of demands, including citizenship, that they want Myanmar to comply with before the Rohingy make their way back. The repatriation process could take up to two years.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported a “land grab” of vacated Rohhingya villages and other areas in Rakhine for Myanmar military and security forces. Tirana Hassan, crisis director for Amnesty International, reportedly stated,  “New bases are being erected to house the very same security forces that have committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya.”

Conditions in the Bangladesh refugee camps are dire. The International Organization for Migration reported a number of life-threatening diseases in the camps, with more than 50 percent of refugees suffering from malnourishment.

The number of Rohingya actually interested in going back to Myanmar is unclear. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar for more than 40 years, and as a result are denied freedom of movement, and access to education and healthcare (Human Rights Watch). The Myanmar government has not agreed to remove these barriers for those who return.

Skepticism Pervades 

Amnesty International issued a report on June 26 that accuses the Myanmar military of “crimes against humanity” for its incursion against the Rohingya. The report, purportedly based upon more than 400 eyewitness interviews, suggests a campaign of ethnic cleansing and details claims of murder, rape, torture, and starvation by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya. Amnesty International calls for referral of the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC). (Am. Intl. press release; download full report.)

The United Nations Special Reporter to the Human Rights Council concerning human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, also supports an investigation by the ICC. The Special Reporter’s oral report was critical of Myanmar for not allowing her to enter the country and for refusing to cooperate with her investigation.

A Myanmar representative, Htin Lynn, stated to the Human Rights Council that the country does not condone human rights violations and that Myanmar had a history of cooperation with the Special Reporter’s office. But despite allegations of ethnic cleansing the military continues to deny journalists and UN members entry to the areas of Rakhine where atrocities were said to take place. Lynn said Lee was denied access to the country because of her lack of objectivity.

In early July 2018, the International Committee of the Red Cross found that Myanmar was not prepared to repatriate the Rohinhya who fled to Bangladesh. The Guardian quoted Red Cross President Peter Maurer, who while visiting Rakhine stated the “reception structure” and the preparation of communities were not ready for the Rohinghya to return.
Two more reports to the same effect have come public on the heels of the Amnesty International piece.
A July 19, 2018 story in Time magazine focused on a report by Fortify Rights, a human rights monitor based in Bangkok. Fortify asserts that Myanmar authorities made extensive plans to commit violence on the Rohingya and to plunder their villages. Among other things, Fortify suggests referral to the ICC, and “a global arms embargo on Myanmar and the Myanmar military.”  Complete Fortify report.
And on July 21, 2018, Reuters reported on another human rights report, this one by Save the Children Norway (to be released later in July 2018), also critical of Myanmar authorities. The Reuters story said that Save the Children Norway claims Myanmar failed to meet its obligations under the “United Nations child rights convention in its crackdown on the Rohingya that led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the minority community.” Reuters reported at least half the people who took refuge from Myanmar’s actions are children.
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