Boris Johnson Wants ‘Safe, Dignified Return’ for Rohingya - Why it’s Way too Early to Mention ‘Return’
Op-ed by Katie Kuschminder, Research Fellow at the Global Governance Programme, 15 February 2018
Since 25 August 2017, 688,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh in one of the worlds worst humanitarian crisis of 2017. The Rohingya are a minority group that have long been persecuted in Myanmar, with new waves of violence and burning of villages beginning in August 2017 as an ethnic cleansing.
The UK has pledged 59 million pounds to the crisis and Boris Johnson has visited both Bangladesh and Myanmar this week to promote ‘safe, dignified return’ for the Rohingya. Late last year Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement for the return of the Rohingya. Myanmar has built structures to accommodate returnees, but none have come. It is understandable that both countries want a solution to this crisis, however, talks of engaging in return are premature.
The UNHCR has three durable solutions to refugee crisis: return and repatriation; local integration, and resettlement. Return is the preferred durable solution in all crises and local integration is only explored in protracted cases wherein refugees cannot return. Resettlement is received by less than one percent of the world’s refugees and is targeted at the most vulnerable.
Both Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to involve the UNHCR in eventual return processes. The UNHCR has stated: “It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place.”
Yet, even discussions of return by a UK senior official are premature. First, the Rohingya are still fleeing. The flow of refugees has not stopped, reflecting that the violence has not stopped. Recent reports from new arrivals to Bangladesh state that the military and police are controlling the food supply — preventing Rohingya from fishing and confiscating their livestock. The new arrivals reported being starved out and having to choose starvation or fleeing. This is on top on the massacres, rape, and destruction of villages that has been occurring since August 2017. The presence of refugees is a clear sign of conflict as people do not dangerously flee unless they feel they must.
Second, there has been no initiation of a peace process, reparations for crimes committed against the Rohingya or even an admission from Myanmar regarding wrongdoing by police officers and state officials within the country. The BBC reported last year speaking to Rakine men who admitted torching a village with police support. What prospect is there for safety and security for Rohingya upon return? Recent arrivals continue to discuss evidence of the atrocities being committed in Myanmar, reflecting that an ethnic cleansing is continuing. Before suggesting or discussing return, foreign officials should be promoting the end of the conflict and discussing reconciliation processes for reparations to be made against the persecuted Rohingya. Any hope for forgiveness, fairness and societal social cohesion requires a large scale peace and reconciliation movement throughout the country to create understanding and acceptance of the Rohingya people.
Third, without a peace and reconciliation process, there is no hope for reintegration and sustainable return. Engaging in return at this time, even voluntary return, may lead to a high likelihood of returnees re-migration again as refugees. On-going insurgencies in Burundi from the mid-70s to early 2000s led to several movements of flight, return and flight again.
No one would have suggested Rwandans to return to Rwanda in 1994 prior to the establishment of peace and reconciliation processes. Following the mass exodus from the genocide in 1994, Rwandan refugees did not start returning until 1996 and 1997, when camps in Zaire were attacked by insurgents. By that time there was global recognition of the atrocities committed and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was already established in late 1994. There were processes in place to prosecute those who had committed the crimes and steps to restore safety, protection and reconciliation.
Boris Johnson was correct in stating after his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi “I encouraged her efforts to broker a nationwide peace settlement to put to an end 70 years of conflict in her homeland.” Until such a process is in place, return should not be in discussion.