Moving Past Repatriation: Alternative Approaches to The Rohingya Refugee Crisis
By Jennifer Saxon, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow
In August 2022, the Rohingya refugee crisis will be recategorized as protracted, a displacement affecting more than 25,000 people living outside of their country for more than five years. The Rohingya will add one million people to the 16 million who have already experienced protracted cross-border displacement. With no end to their plight in sight, concerns over the inhumane treatment of Rohingya inside and outside of Myanmar continue while Bangladesh remains one of the few places of refuge in the region.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that Bangladesh, already one of the most densely populated countries, is host to 90% of the Rohingya refugees registered in the Asia-Pacific region. These numbers have added to overcrowding in Cox’s Bazar where most of the Rohingya reside, an area with the highest population density of any city in the world.
Despite numerous resolutions and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, the international community has been unable to end Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya or devise humane and sustainable solutions to their displacement. Efforts to resolve the displacement, which threatens regional stability, have been centered on repatriation or voluntary return to Myanmar. This is a premature solution given the government’s continued refusal to recognize Rohingya citizenship or create the conditions necessary for their safe and dignified return.
The continued preference for repatriation after the February 2021 military coup that ousted Myanmar’s newly re-elected civilian government is naïve at best, as the country is now led by the very same forces which persecuted the Rohingya. Rather than pursue an agenda of wishful thinking, the United Nations (UN) should take this opportunity to actively promote more sustainable approaches throughout the region and reassert its role as a champion for global human rights.
Origins of Rohingya Persecution
When Myanmar gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Muslim Rohingya enjoyed all the rights of citizenship and were instrumental in the establishment of the country’s new government. Over time, however, military leaders began to disenfranchise groups they considered “foreign,” those who did not belong to one of ten recognized “national races.” Instead, the Rohingya were reclassified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Any reference to the “Rohingya” name was replaced with “Bengali.” By the 1970s, the military had confiscated the Rohingya’s identification papers and destroyed their property. In 1982, Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their rights to citizenship and all related benefits. Their persecution became increasingly violent in the 1980s leading to the first Rohingya refugee flight in 1991.
Upon repatriation in 1992, the government placed additional restrictions on Rohingya human rights that grew more severe over time. To this day, Rohingya must obtain permission from the government to marry and are only allowed two children per family. They also need permission to travel, even to neighboring villages which may be the closest location for health services and job opportunities. Those opportunities are limited as the Rohingya are not allowed to teach or pursue careers in the medical or engineering fields. The government has also used the Rohingya and their children for forced labor, denying them pay for their work.
The Rohingya are not the only ethnic minority in Myanmar. In fact, there are 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country. The Rohingya are unique, however, in that they are a Muslim group residing in a Buddhist region (Rakhine) of a predominantly Buddhist country. They have also refused to accept the citizenship hierarchy that has classified them as immigrants, denied them citizenship, and rendered them stateless. In response to the government’s increased restrictions, discrimination, and destruction of property, groups of Rohingya have risen up in violent protest.
Violence between armed Rohingya and Buddhist groups within the Rakhine territory worsened in the 2000s, as did military clashes in the region. Ongoing violence and ill-treatment resulted in a growing Rohingya insurgency that began to retaliate against the Myanmar military in 2016. In August and September 2017, the Myanmar military forces conducted a “clearance operation” during which they burned villages, raped women and killed approximately 9,000 men, women and children — driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya out of the country. While the military framed the operation as a justified response to the armed attacks by Rohingya forces, the international community condemned it as “disproportionate.”
Ongoing Conflicts in Myanmar
The Rohingya insurgency is just one example of the ongoing ethnic violence plaguing Myanmar, a result of a governance structure that favored the military and just one political group, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Elections in 2010 began a transition from military rule to democratic governance, yet the military continued to enjoy a tremendous amount of power and influence that included control over the country’s defense and security, a guaranteed hold on 25% of all parliamentary seats, and one of two vice presidential slots. The military’s tight hold on security policy resulted in increased violence against numerous ethnic groups in the country, groups that have continued to take up arms.
Despite this level of control, the military regime has never been comfortable sharing a leadership role with the elected civilian government. After protesting the results of the latest election, Myanmar’s military deposed the newly re-elected NLD government in February 2021 and restored military rule. Since the coup, efforts to quell protests and rising insurgencies have resulted in 1,000 deaths and nearly 8,000 arrests. A new “shadow government,” the National Unity Government (NUG), has declared war against the military regime, calling on citizens to revolt. If the NUG can gain control of the country, the likelihood of Rohingya repatriation may increase as party leaders have expressed support for the Rohingya and their demands for citizenship.
The Push for Repatriation
The international community has hung its hat on Rohingya repatriation since the refugee crisis began, yet little has been done to ensure that conditions within Myanmar are conducive to return. Myanmar’s NLD government and Bangladesh drafted several resolutions paving the way for repatriation, but displaced Rohingya have refused to return if the conditions which drove them out remain unchanged. The Rohingya want citizenship, justice, internal protection, a return to their villages and land, and recognition of their group name (“Rohingya”) rather than the “Bengali” moniker that has rendered them stateless since the 1980s.
Despite the Rohingya’s refusal to return, the international community has retained a myopic focus on repatriation that ignores the reality of conditions within Myanmar. The international response to Rohingya displacement follows a well-worn path: displaced people are consigned to camps and detention centers designed for temporary use, denied their basic human rights of freedom of movement, employment, education, and health with the assurances that these inconveniences will be short-lived. Nations act with a blind disregard for reality, operating as if those who are displaced are, at most, months away from returning home. Because displacement is treated as a temporary condition , only the most immediate and critical aid is given, trapping people in situations of interminable limbo.
The UN has acknowledged that conditions within Myanmar are not safe for return. The Myanmar military commander-in-chief has admitted that they will not repatriate those they do not consider citizens — the Rohingya are considered migrants from Bangladesh. Yet, the international community continues to push for repatriation, treating this prolonged displacement as a temporary problem that can be contained within Bangladesh until the conditions for return are created (or coerced).
Since 2017, the UN has drafted annual response plans focused exclusively on humanitarian aid for Cox’s Bazar with the expressed goal of preparing the Rohingya for eventual return to Myanmar. Although the international community has provided billions of dollars in response, that aid has fallen short of requested amounts each year and has diminished even more since the COVID pandemic began. Occasionally, the UN will urge countries to allow Rohingya asylum seekers to cross their borders but these appeals are few in comparison to the calls for humanitarian assistance within Bangladesh, and political pressure for improved conditions or the restoration of democracy within Myanmar.
Beyond the Camps
After four years, Bangladesh’s resources and goodwill are strained. Humanitarian aid designed to keep the Rohingya in place is not enough. To relieve overcrowding, Bangladesh has started to relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees to a man-made silt island, Bhasan Char, situated in the Bay of Bengal — a three-hour journey by navy vessel. Though the island may help Bangladesh relieve some population pressure, food shortages, poor medical care and an inability to freely leave the island have prompted many Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries. Most of these countries, however, are not signatories to the Refugee Convention and refuse to grant refugee status to the Rohingya, denying them related protections and, increasingly, refusing entry altogether.
India considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants and has implemented a policy of deportation and detention. Malaysia, which hosts the largest number of Rohingya refugees outside of Bangladesh, has declared that it can no longer do so given its “struggling economy and diminishing resources.” In addition, Malaysia has joined Indonesia and Thailand in pushing back boats at sea and detaining refugees for return when the COVID pandemic subsides.
Although neighboring countries have been unwilling to take in more refugees, southeast Asian governments have become more vocal regarding the need to resolve the ongoing crisis. Malaysia and Indonesia have been the strongest proponents of the need for a coordinated, regional response to the persecution of the Rohingya and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Both countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which are each struggling to identify their roles in remedying the refugee crisis.
ASEAN is under increasing pressure from international aid organizations and some of its own member states to do more to resolve the violence, restore democracy, and protect the Rohingya. Prior to the military coup, ASEAN representatives participated in the last Rohingya repatriation effort, conducting a needs assessment within Myanmar. Their involvement, however, did not persuade the Rohingya to return. After the coup, Myanmar’s new military leaders met with ASEAN and agreed to an “immediate cessation of hostilities.” This agreement did nothing to stop ongoing conflicts within Myanmar or improve the conditions of the Rohingya who have remained in the country, trapped in “open-air detention camps.” These failures illustrate ASEAN’s inability to leverage any real influence over the evolving situation in Myanmar.
The OIC has taken a stronger stance against Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, providing financial assistance to Gambia in that country’s request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an investigation into whether Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention. OIC member countries have also provided financial support to Bangladesh to help with refugee support. Like ASEAN, however, the OIC has had little influence over the events unfolding within Myanmar and its member states have been unwilling to offer alternative refuge to the Rohingya outside of Bangladesh.
China has emerged as perhaps the most influential foreign power in Myanmar. Its influence in southeast Asia has increased due in large part to development projects related to its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Myanmar holds significant strategic importance for China’s continued economic growth, prompting tremendous BRI investment in Myanmar’s seaports and land transit routes. Since the Rohingya refugee crisis began, China has come to Myanmar’s defense, protecting it from UN Security Council actions, weakening related UN resolutions, and offering to mediate several repatriation agreements with Bangladesh. China has also provided funding to create the infrastructure needed to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya to the island of Bhasan Char. Since the military coup, however, China has been unable to resume repatriation talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar, essentially halting any previous progress made in negotiating the Rohingya’s return.
The international community is in want of clear leadership in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. The continued pursuit of repatriation in the face of deteriorating conditions in Myanmar and unsustainable conditions in Bangladesh puts the Rohingya in further danger. Repatriation is only viable if the conflict and systemic persecution within Myanmar can be resolved. If the Rohingya return too soon, human rights violations will continue, and conflict will recur. The Rohingya need to go where they can earn a living, build lives, and have their basic human rights protected.
Currently, the UN has three separate agencies fulfilling humanitarian aid roles in this crisis: UNHCR, IOM, and OCHA. With overlapping agendas and funding, these agencies are unnecessarily “vying for space, resources and recognition.” Expertise and financial resources would be more effective if each agency were responsible for its own unique area: leading the humanitarian response (UNHCR), helping to create the conditions for return (OCHA), and establishing alternatives to long-term encampment (IOM).
These UNHCR and OCHA mandates would continue the humanitarian and repatriation work that has been the focus of the UN’s response for the past four years. IOM could then dedicate its workforce to brokering a holistic, regional response that incorporates regional mobility, temporary resettlement options, and new pathways to citizenship.
IOM could work with the World Bank to offset responsibility-sharing costs, making a collaborative regional resettlement solution to the displacement crisis more palatable to ASEAN and OIC member states. Regional mobility would provide the Rohingya with better living conditions, better prospects for employment, and a reduction in the inhumane treatment they’ve experienced for decades.
In addition, IOM could work with ASEAN and the OIC to create humanitarian visas which would permit the Rohingya to travel throughout the region in pursuit of employment and education opportunities. Labor mobility could be facilitated through bilateral agreements, matching refugees with job opportunities in third countries. Such agreements could include training and pathways for resettlement or citizenship. These efforts could also include coordination of resettlement options in countries already home to a Rohingya diaspora, such as Pakistan, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia. IOM could also encourage Bangladesh to reestablish its Rohingya resettlement program that was discontinued in 2010 out of fears that it would serve to attract those looking to migrate to the West. With the vast majority of Rohingya already stranded in Bangladesh, it’s unlikely that resettlement would open the floodgates to more refugees.
While calls to consider mobility and resettlement alternatives to the Rohingya refugee crisis are not new, they have been crowded out by an outdated preference for return that willfully ignores the realities on the ground in Myanmar and Bangladesh. By focusing exclusively on repatriation, the UN has allowed all nations to save face while shirking their responsibility to protect refugees and maintain global peace and security. Repatriation must take a back seat to more realistic, near-term solutions. Only then can the crisis be resolved in a sustainable and humane way.