from Asia Unbound

Repatriating "Verified" Rohingya—Don't Hold Your Breath

Rohingya refugees who just arrived by wooden boats from Myanmar reach out to receive some aid Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 3, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

October 4, 2017

Rohingya refugees who just arrived by wooden boats from Myanmar reach out to receive some aid Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 3, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters
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Refugees and Displaced Persons

Humanitarian Crises

The Bangladesh press highlighted yesterday that Myanmar once again has declared willingness to repatriate Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh—after a “verification” process.

According to the Daily Star, the verification should be “in accordance to Joint Statement of April 1992,” a statement issued by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar concerning procedures for Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar in the 1990s. (As I wrote earlier, the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine State during September is one more chapter in a long-running tragedy.) A copy of the original Joint Statement is available via the Forced Migration Online digital library. The central problem with the Joint Statement can be easily seen on item iv on page four, which states that Myanmar will be willing to:

…repatriate in batches all persons inter-alia: carrying Myanmar Citizenship Identity Cards/National Registration Cards; those able to present any other documents issued by relevant Myanmar authorities and; all those persons able to furnish evidence of their residence in Myanmar, such as addresses or any other relevant particulars.

As countless press reports illustrate, the more than 500,000 Rohingya who have fled violence in Myanmar to safety in Bangladesh over the past month—carrying whatever little they could—in all likelihood do not possess extensive formal documents. Indeed, the Daily Star goes on to note that, “If any refugee is stripped of documents prior to crossing over, as is the case common to majority of the 507,000 refugees, he or she will lose eligibility to return back to Myanmar.”

Reuters, reporting from Cox’s Bazar, found Rohingya refugees “skeptical” about ever returning home. One interviewee explained, “I don’t believe the government. Every time the government agrees we can go back, then we’re there and they break their promise.”

As I noted on September 20, it is true that in the late 1990s a repatriation of Rohingya refugees occurred. But thousands of Rohingya have remained officially in refugee camps and unofficially in makeshift settlements in Bangladesh. Another wave of refugees in 2012 raised the issue again, as more Rohingya escaped violence into stressed Bangladesh without any clear future.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch and others raised concerns about the Myanmar government’s process for “citizenship assessment” of the Rohingya. The census carried out by the Myanmar government in 2014 did not allow Rohingya to identify themselves as Rohingya. Denied citizenship in Myanmar, chased out by violence that UN representatives have termed “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and that “may amount to crimes against humanity,” and with Bangladesh overwhelmed and unwilling to offer a pathway to permanent residency, the next question central to this humanitarian crisis will be how to find a future for the refugees. Where will they go?

Bangladeshi authorities have developed a plan to resettle some Rohingya on an island in the Bay of Bengal. The island, named Thengar Char or Bhasan Char, is subject to regular flooding, the vagaries of monsoons, and unclear effects of climate change. It’s hardly a viable solution for hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people. And it’s worth noting as well that over in India, a case before the Supreme Court concerns whether 40,000 Rohingya refugees already in India should be deported. The Indian government has said they are “illegals” and should return to Myanmar.

That the Donald J. Trump administration proposes to cut by around half the number of refugees the United States will accept does not help, and sets a poor example at a time when the question of refugee resettlement has become a global humanitarian emergency.

For the moment, Bangladesh should not have to bear the burden of this crisis without greater support. The United Nations issued an urgent fundraising appeal yesterday for a Humanitarian Response Plan, for an overarching amount of $434 million to cover shelter, food, relief sites, water and sanitation, health, education, logistics, and other emergency operations through February 2018. The amount reflects efforts underway by several UN agencies as well as national and international relief organizations working in Bangladesh. Bangladesh needs the help.

The Myanmar government’s signals about allowing “verified” Rohingya to return to their homes seem unlikely to help more than a few refugees, based on recent patterns. It will take concerted political negotiation after the emergency phase ends to resolve the question of what comes next for the Rohingya. But don’t hold your breath for a solution from Myanmar.

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, will be out in January. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook ( or Instagram (

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