Myanmar’s repatriation plan: Cart before the horse?

By Jack Musgrave, Jus Humanis Treasurer 

In recent weeks there has been a discernible shift in the foreign policy within the government of Myanmar. The government wishes to promote their newly formed “repatriation centres,” taking foreign diplomats on tours of the centres to show their commitment to accepting the return of Rohingya from Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government, with the assistance of the UNHCR, have slowed the repatriation process in the wake of grave concerns about safety and security in Rakhine state. This concern is typified by the observations of the recent U.N. envoy who inspected a camp in Cox’s Bazar. U.N Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour said the Myanmar government is continuing its “campaign of terror and forced starvation” in northern Rakhine State, in spite of assuring the international community that food is being distributed. The U.N. envoy concluded that “Safe, dignified and sustainable returns are of course impossible under current conditions” due to the “widespread and systemic violence” in Rakhine State.

“Safe, dignified and sustainable returns are of course impossible under current conditions”

 –Andrew Gilmour U.N Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, 6 March 2018

Further concerns have been mounting at reports of the increased threat of Myanmar security forces on the Bangladesh border. Last week, two hundred security force personnel were deployed close to makeshift camps just inside the Myanmar border. The threat and continuation of violence is ever-present. Moreover, there is continued impunity for and denial of international war crimes by the security forces in Rakhine State. New reports of continued violence in Rakhine State have been echoed by refugees arriving into Bangladesh.

Another concern is the inadequate steps taken by the Myanmar government to address a formal path to citizenship for Rohingya. Many Rohingya worry about the proposed National Verification Cards (NVCs), which do not acknowledge religion, restrict free movement and lack a validity date. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the NVCs will not be rescinded, as was the case with the previous “white card” documentation.

There has been no assurance by the Myanmar government that property or land will be returned to the Rohingya once they are repatriated. Myanmar’s Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye has said they will be resettled at or near their place of origin. However, recent refugees to Bangladesh have said they witnessed local authorities bulldozing abandoned communities and farmland. EU Ambassador to Myanmar Kristen Schmidt visually catalogued the recently burnt communities, which have been completely decimated. This includes the destruction of mosques, schools and other community sites, further highlighting the attempt to remove Rohingya entirely from the landscape.

The decades-long hostile political climate that has fuelled hatred towards the Rohingya still persists. Unless there is a clear and unequivocal guarantee for safe, dignified and sustainable return for the Rohingya, there can be no long-lasting peace. The EU and the international community at large need to take meaningful steps to address the concerns of the Rohingya refugees before Myanmar’s repatriation plan can be taken seriously.

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