Rohingya Repatriation: All-Out Support From Stakeholders Is Required For Success Of Pilot Project

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At present, 1.2 million registered Rohingyas are living in the camps inside Bangladesh. For last six years, Bangladesh has been shouldering this burden. This protracted crisis needs to be over as early as possible. Initiative for the repatriation of the Rohingyas has been taken twice before but was not executed due to the reluctance of the Rohingyas and the security situation in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.  Owing to the present global crisis, the amount of aid for the Rohingyas has been reduced as the pressure on the humanitarian funds of different countries and donors has increased. There is the possibility and the fear of a further decrease in humanitarian aid and support in the future. The decline in international aid has raised concerns among the Rohingyas. Bangladesh alone will not be able to feed and shelter these Rohingyas indefinitely if the aid and humanitarian support are reduced.

The security situation in the Rohingya camps is also worsening day by day. The relationship between the Rohingyas and the local community is also deteriorating. Various types of crimes committed by the Rohingyas inside and outside the camps pose a threat to Bangladesh and regional security. Due to this deteriorating law and order situation, the cost of ensuring camp security is increasing, which in turn puts pressure on the economy of Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh has sought financial assistance from friendly countries and donor organizations to control the situation, which has not yet been received.

On 8-9 March, Myanmar authorities took the initiative to show the preparation of the on-going pilot project for the repatriation of the Rohingyas. They arranged a visit for 11 diplomats from 8 countries including the ambassador of Bangladesh posted there to see the temporary camps and surrounding areas built for the Rohingyas in Maungdaw and Sittwe in Myanmar. After this, on March 15, a 22-member delegation from Myanmar arrived in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and verified the information of 480 Rohingyas belonging to 177 families.

A tripartite meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar was held in Kunming on April 18, mediated by China, and as part of this, the third initiative to repatriate the Rohingyas was taken.

After this meeting, a delegation of 27 members, including 20 Rohingyas, went to the Rakhine state on May 5 to see if the situation there is suitable for repatriation. Members of the Rohingya delegation were shown various infrastructures including 15 villages, rehabilitation and transit centers around Maungdaw city.

The members of the Bangladesh delegation who went with them expressed their satisfaction after seeing the situation there. Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Mizanur Rahman told that, they visited the town and villages of Maungdaw and talked to the Rohingyas there, the environment there is very good. Rohingyas are moving freely and are busy with activities in Maungdaw City. He is optimistic about the situation and the preparation taken for the repatriation of the Rohingyas. The visit was arranged to show the Rohingyas the situation on the ground to increase their confidence.

In continuation of this, a delegation from Myanmar will visit Bangladesh in May to discuss the pilot project of Rohingya repatriation. During that time, the delegation will discuss and interact with the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar to enhance their confidence in the repatriation initiative. If everything goes well, China and Myanmar want to start repatriation with the first group of 1,176 Rohingyas in May. There are plans to take 6,000 Rohingyas back to Rakhine by December in 5 more phases.

For the smooth implementation of this pilot project representative of ASEAN, UNDP and UNHCR are said to be present at the repatriation and reception centres.  Another meeting will be held in December to review the current repatriation initiatives and the planned repatriation of six thousand Rohingyas to Myanmar. China has been active in repatriating Rohingyas for months amid increasing international pressure on Myanmar’s military junta. China’s Special Envoy Deng Xijun visited Myanmar in December 2022. On April 6, he met the Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh in Dhaka to discuss this issue. China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen, said that China is steadily mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speed up the repatriation process of the Rohingyas. He expressed that the repatriation is the only solution to this crisis. The Chinese ambassador hopes that with the support of the international community and the joint efforts of Bangladesh and Myanmar, a sustainable repatriation process will begin.

Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen stated that, in the last five-six months Myanmar side portrayed the positive attitude towards this issue. If the situation remains unchanged, it is expected that the Rohingya repatriation will get the momentum. A statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on May 4 said that China wants Myanmar to have more friendly and cooperative bilateral relations with Bangladesh.

To understand the situation in the Rakhine, it is necessary for the Rohingyas to welcome this repatriation initiative. Otherwise, the crisis will be protracted which is not desired by anyone. They should continue to seek citizenship rights and other benefits after going back to Myanmar. It has to be considered how realistic it is for the Rohingyas staying inside Bangladesh to be granted privileges and citizenship in Myanmar, as this has not been possible in the last six years.

The Rohingyas should return to Myanmar and establish good relations with the local people thereby adapting themselves there. Simultaneously they should continue to strive for their rights under the supervision of international organizations and the UN. Rohingyas have to live together with the people of Rakhine for ages so they have to prepare themselves accordingly.

The representatives from Bangladesh observed that in Maungdaw Rohingyas are free to continue with their business and the condition of the model villages established for the repatriated Rohingyas have better facilities. This information should be communicated to the Rohingyas by appropriate authorities to motivate them for voluntary repatriation. It is still not clear regarding the role of the UN, ASEAN, or any other stakeholders to ensure the safety and humanitarian support of the Rohingyas once they return to Myanmar. ASEAN is working to finalize an assessment process to continue providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. In that, how many people need help, where and what type of help is needed will be assessed. If the Rohingyas return to Myanmar, they should also be included in this initiative.

To encourage Rohingyas to take part in this repatriation process necessary initiative needs to be taken along with visionary Rohingya leaders. Donor agencies, organizations working to protect the interest of the Rohingyas, the UN and the international community should come forward to support this pilot project.

Bangladesh has shown a sense of responsibility in solving this protracted humanitarian crisis. Considering all aspects, this family-based repatriation process will give confidence to the Rohingyas to return to Myanmar and an environment of trust will be created.

Although the UN and Western countries are not involved in this initiative, a third party may act as a bridge. Japan has close ties with Myanmar as well as Western countries. Japan can act as a mediator for the Western world in this repatriation. After the repatriation of the first batch to Myanmar, problems and prospects of this process will unfold and concerned authorities will get the idea to take further necessary steps to continue the process. The international community must take appropriate steps to establish the relationship between the Rohingyas and the Rakhine community to ensure the harmonious coexistence.

In 2017, the Myanmar government, the people of Rakhine, and the political parties had a tough stand and prejudice against the Rohingyas, which has been softened up in the last six years. That became evident from the latest statements of the Arakan Army and the National Unity Government. It is not possible to change this attitude overnight but if this moves in a positive direction, things will change one day.

UNHCR mentioned that it will continue to train the Rohingyas for self-reliance, which will help them contribute to Rakhine’s economy by enhancing their professional skills. If the economic and social situation in the Rakhine state improves, then the animosity between the two communities will reduce. Support of the international community is essential to ensure this congenial environment.

All the stakeholders should try their best to help this process from their respective positions. Everyone must take necessary steps to make this pilot project successful so that gradually 1.2 million Rohingyas staying in Bangladesh can voluntarily return to Myanmar. This global crisis should be tackled globally and Bangladesh needs everyone’s sincere support to get rid of this crisis.

– Brig Gen (Retd) Hasan Md Shamsuddin, ndc, psc, afwc, Mphil, is a Lead Researcher for the Rohingya, Myanmar and ASEAN Affairs at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Eurasia Review [Link]