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We Must Not Repeat the Shameful History of Returning Rohingya Refugees

As Rohingya refugees poured out of Myanmar into Bangladesh last fall, the two countries were already negotiating mass returns. This wouldn’t be the first premature repatriation of Rohingya, but today it reflects a trend of unsafe returns, says refugee expert Jeff Crisp.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Rohingya refugees in Balukhali camp on January 14, 2018, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Allison Joyce/Getty Images

One of the most striking characteristics of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh has been the speed with which the two states have started to discuss and plan for the refugees’ repatriation.

On August 25, 2017, an attack by militants claiming to represent Myanmar’s stateless Muslim minority prompted a violent response by the country’s security forces. Within just two months, over 600,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh.

Even as refugees continued to flee – at least 50,000 more by the end of 2017 and smaller numbers in January 2018 – Bangladesh and Myanmar started negotiations in early October and reached a bilateral agreement by mid-November to begin repatriation within two months.

Many aid agencies and human rights organizations expressed serious reservations about the premature nature of this accord. But other members of the international community were warming to the idea that the speedy return of the Rohingya would avert a very large, long-term refugee situation in Bangladesh that would be extremely expensive to maintain and which would have a destabilizing impact on the region.

On November 24, 2017, for example, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini issued a highly optimistic statement on the Rohingya following a visit to both countries, saying, “We expect their return to happen fast and in safe conditions.”

Myanmar and Bangladesh continue to express confidence that the repatriation process is on track to begin January 22. Yet Rohingya refugees are extremely reluctant to return to a country where they have been subjected to terrible violence and where they would continue to be deprived of citizenship, rights and economic opportunities. Some have said they would rather die in Bangladesh than return to Myanmar.

Almost no details have been released about the way in which Bangladesh and Myanmar would organize and finance the return and reintegration of such a massive refugee population. And the U.N.’s refugee and migration agencies have both been at pains to point out that they have had no involvement in the planning process.

While these considerations seem likely to delay the implementation of the repatriation process and limit the number of refugees that it involves, there is no room for complacency.

First, large numbers of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh before, most notably in 1978 and 1991. And on both occasions, they were forced to return to Myanmar on the basis of bilateral agreements signed between the two countries, with the refugees being expelled from Bangladesh by means of intimidation, physical violence, the use of military force, the withdrawal of food aid and other forms of assistance.

Shamefully, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) was both complicit in and publicly silent about these events. That disregard for the rights and dignity of the Rohingya was encapsulated by a telling comment made by one of the organization’s senior officials at a meeting I attended in 1992. “These are primitive people,” they remarked. “At the end of the day they will go where they are told to go.”

It is now incumbent on UNHCR to ensure that there is no repetition of these earlier scenarios, insisting that any repatriation that takes place in the future does so in a way that is both voluntary and safe, as stipulated in the organization’s own guidelines on refugee returns. That will require UNHCR to take a robust stand in its dealings with Bangladesh, Myanmar, the E.U. and other donors, all of whom are likely to have other priorities.

A second cause for concern is that the premature repatriation of the Rohingya refugees is by no means an isolated example.

Recently, Somali refugees in Kenya have been encouraged, cajoled and induced to repatriate by threats of camp closure, reduced assistance levels and increased indebtedness. Large numbers of Afghan refugees have been repatriating from Pakistan as a result of harassment and intimidation, despite the deteriorating security situation and diminishing opportunities in Afghanistan.

In Cameroon, the military has used strong-arm tactics to expel thousands of refugees who have fled from extremist violence in Nigeria. And in Lebanon, the government and other local actors have been exerting growing pressure on refugees to return to Syria, a country where armed conflict and human rights abuses continue unabated.

As demonstrated by the earlier experience of the Rohingya, the principle of voluntary and safe repatriation has never been universally respected, and it would be misleading to suggest these developments are entirely new. Even so, the scale and frequency of involuntary refugee returns in recent years suggest that a fundamental norm of refugee protection is now being challenged as never before.

Can this trend be halted? The omens are not good. The world’s most prosperous states appear to have concluded that the best way to deal with asylum seekers arriving at their borders is to send them back to where they came from: countries such as Turkey, Libya and Afghanistan in the case of the E.U.; Central America with respect to the U.S.; Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam for Australia. Developing countries with much weaker economies and far larger refugee populations have taken full note of these developments and are understandably asking why they should not follow the same example.

Further cause for concern can be found in the negotiation of the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees. On one hand, the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants that established the Global Compact process, asserts that the international community “will actively promote durable solutions” for refugees, “with a focus on sustainable and timely return in safety and dignity.” On the other hand, it asserts that refugee repatriation “should not necessarily be conditioned on the accomplishment of political solutions in the country of origin.”

This statement paves the way for the return of refugees to a country such as Myanmar, where the anticipated democratic transition has failed. Without solutions that include the recognition of Rohingya citizenship and human rights, we are likely to see history repeating itself yet again in the future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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