By Naimul Haq
Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan 14 (IPS) – The repatriation of Rohingya refugees driven from their villages through violence and terror appears uncertain, with critics saying the agreement legalising the process of their return is both controversial and impractical.
Shireen Huq, a leading women’s rights activist and founder of Naripokkho, one of the oldest women’s rights organisations here, told IPS, “In my view Bangladesh should not have rushed into the bilateral ‘arrangement’ and especially without the involvement of the United Nations or consulting the refugees themselves.“Bangladesh should have engaged in a diplomatic tsunami to gain the support of its neighbours and in particular to win the support of China and Russia. The international community has to step up its pressure on Myanmar to stop the killings, the persecution and the discrimination.”
The uncertainty deepened with Myanmar regime still refusing to recognize the refugees as their citizens, throwing the possibility of any peaceful return into doubt.
UNHCR estimates there have been 655,000 new arrivals in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, 2017, bringing the total number of refugees to 954,500.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding on Nov. 23, 2017 on the repatriation of Rohingya people who fled their ancestral home in Rakhine state in the wake of military assaults on their villages.
But Huq notes that a similar 1993 bilateral agreement to repatriate Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh was not very successful as the voluntary repatriation was opposed by the majority of the refugees.
She describes Bangladesh government’s generosity and the subsequent responsibilities as a ‘job well done’ but she fell short of praising the deal, saying, “This is going to be a repeat of the 1993 agreement where involving only bilateral efforts clearly showed that it does not work.”
“They [Rohingyas] are going to be here for a long time,” Huq predicted. “If we understand correctly, the Rohingyas will not be allowed to return to their previous abode, their own villages, but moved to new settlements. In that case, it is the same old story. They would move from a camp in Bangladesh to a camp in Myanmar. It will be another humanitarian disaster.”
She continued, “If this arrangement is implemented as it is, it will be like another ‘push back’ of the refugees by Bangladesh, unless the international community oversees the repatriation and can guarantee their safe and peaceful settlement and rehabilitation.”
While the deal has been welcomed by the international community, including the US, the European Union and the United Nations, others urged the government to involve a third party to ensure a sustainable solution to the crisis.
They say that Bangladesh has little experience in managing an international repatriation process and unless it fulfills the international repatriation and rehabilitation principles, the agreed terms may not be strong enough to create a lasting solution.
Muhammad Zamir, a veteran diplomat, told IPS that the world should not leave Bangladesh to shoulder the complex problem alone.
“It is unfair to burden Bangladesh with such a huge task that requires multiple factors to be considered before initiating the process of repatriation. The foremost issue is ensuring security or protection of the refuges once they return.”
Zamir, who just returned from a visit to the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, says, “The situation in the camps is already a humanitarian disaster and it is getting worse by the day. These people [Rohingya] are already traumatized and confused. They have suffered enough with the ordeals they have gone through. There is no guarantee that with the nightmares still fresh in their minds they would want to return so early unless there are strong and serious efforts to guarantee their protection in the long run.”
A Joint Working Group (JWG) consisting of government representatives from Myanmar and Bangladesh was formed on Dec. 19 and tasked with developing a specific instrument on the physical arrangement for the repatriation of returnees. The first meeting of the JWG is due to take place on Jan. 15, 2018.
Former army general M Sakhawat Husain, a noted columnist and national security and political analyst, told IPS, “The Rohyngas’ legitimate and minimum demand to be recognised as citizens of their native land is completely ignored in the agreement. In the face of continuous persecution still going on, as widely reported, how can voluntary repatriation take place?”
“The most damaging clause seems to be agreeing on the terms of Myanmar that is scrutiny of papers or authenticity of their being residence of Rakhaine,” he added.
“Most of these people fled under sub-humane and grotesque torture. It would be difficult for Bangladesh to send them back voluntarily. The report suggests that unless a guarantee of security and minimum demand of citizenship not given these people may not go back.”
Former ambassador Muhammad Shafiullah said, “It is quite uncertain to execute such a huge repatriation process without involving the UN system although Myanmar has outright rejected involving the UN. In such a situation how can we expect a smooth repatriation process?”
Shafiullah expressed deep concern about the inadequate financial support for humanitarian aid to the Rohingya camps.
“The UN system so far could garner funds for six month. Another pledging meeting is expected before the fund is exhausted. Bangladesh cannot support such an overwhelming burden alone for a long time. Precisely for this reason Bangladesh signed the agreement for repatriation although the terms were not favorable to her.”
By Naimul Haq