Last week, it was reported that the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding for a plan to eventually repatriate large numbers of Rohingya from Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Over 600,000 Rohingya reportedly have fled into Bangladesh since August 2017 alone. In August, Rakhine violence—which has been severe in Rakhine State for five years now—spiked once again. That number of refugees in camps inside Bangladesh does not include the many Rohingya who had fled into Bangladesh before August 2017.
Reporting about the details of the memorandum on return remain sketchy. CNN reported that “So far, no official details have been released on the agreement, what it would entail and under what circumstances the Rohingya would return.” The New York Times reported that “Neither side [Dhaka or Naypyidaw] gave many details, apart from a vague commitment to beginning a repatriation process within two months’ time.”
Still, before any Rohingya return to Myanmar, both countries would need to adequately answer several questions. First, is it really safe for Rohingya to return? There is little evidence that the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, reportedly overseen by the security forces and encouraged by many hard-line Buddhist nationalist religious and political leaders, has even stopped. Human rights organizations are still recording details of refugees fleeing into Bangladesh saying that ethnic cleansing remains underway in Rakhine State. Much of the northern part of the state is still often inaccessible to monitors and journalists. Who will determine that it is safe for Rohingya to leave Bangladesh and go into Myanmar?
According to some reports, Dhaka and Naypyidaw have agreed to allow UNHCR to oversee repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar. But how can UNHCR do so while violence is still going on in Rakhine State? What’s more, the Myanmar government reportedly has not agreed to allow UNHCR full access to Rakhine State.
Second, where would Rohingya who returned to Rakhine State be housed? Many have not only been driven out of their homes by a campaign of violence but also witnessed their dwellings burnt to the ground or seized by local police or Buddhist residents. It seems highly unlikely that the Myanmar army, Rakhine politicians, and the national government would allow Rohingya to return to their homes; Naypyidaw seems uninterested in some kind of program to resettle Rohingya elsewhere in Rakhine State.
Instead, as Amnesty International has warned, Rohingya who did return into Myanmar could wind up in camps that are already established in Rakhine State. Those camps, which have held Rohingya since the violence first broke out five years ago, have been condemned by rights organizations as little more than open-air jails or concentration camps.
Third, even if international monitors were allowed to travel in Rakhine State freely, and there was a real opportunity for Rohingya to return and rebuild communities in Rakhine, what rights would they have—and who would pay for their resettlement? As it currently stands, most Rohingya are disenfranchised, and are viewed by most national, ethnic Bamar politicians as aliens to the Myanmar state—as people who are not one of the state’s recognized groups and thus do not enjoy the rights of Myanmar citizens. Meanwhile, hard-line Buddhist nationalism is on the rise in Myanmar, and no prominent politician, including Aung San Suu Kyi, will risk alienating Buddhist nationalists. If the Rohingya return, to Rakhine State or other parts of the country, but they do not have citizenship rights, they will remain complete outsiders to the Myanmar state-building project, and will live outside the rule of law. They will have few legal protections, and no protectors in government
If Rohingya return to Myanmar without getting such legal rights, what guarantees will they have that there won’t be pogroms against them in the future? This is a question that Pope Francis, who is visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh this week on one of the most difficult trips of his papacy, should raise with Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders.