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"Bangladesh is Right to Delay the Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees" by Su-Ann Oh

2018/6, 24 January 2018

The repatriation of Rohingya refugees (referred to as Bengali in Myanmar) from Bangladesh to Myanmar was slated to begin on 23 January but has been postponed by the Bangladesh government amid concerns about the repatriation procedures and the unwillingness of the refugees to return. Beyond these, there are several issues that still need to be addressed by the Myanmar government before a safe and voluntary return can occur.

The way in which residency verification will be undertaken is still unclear. According to Bangladesh authorities, the refugees will be asked for documentation, failing which they will be asked to identify streets, villages and other landmarks near their former homes as proof of their residency. In reality, it will be difficult for the refugees to show documentation given that many have been systematically stripped of it in the past few decades and that they fled their homes with very few belongings. In the past, the Myanmar government did accept the use of landmarks to verify residency status in previous repatriation, will it do so this time around?

There remain serious concerns about returnees’ housing. After going through the verification and assessment process, they will be moved on to a “transit camp” before being sent back to their place of origin. There are no guarantees that they will return to their original homes and their new homes have not yet been built. A scheme has been proposed to offer the returnees cash to build their own homes. However, there are still questions surrounding land ownership and the infrastructure for new homes and new villages. Given that the plans for housing are unclear, will the returnees be forced to remain in the “transit camp” indefinitely, a situation akin to the 130 000 Rohingya (and Rakhine) confined in camps around Sittwe as a result of previous conflicts?

Many of the refugees have stated that they will only go back if they are given citizenship in Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not contain any specific sections to deny Rohingya citizenship, so in theory, they may apply for and be granted citizenship. However, there are both political and logistical impediments. Rohingya in Myanmar who have already been awarded citizenship, have had to accept being labelled ‘Bengali’ on all official documents and prove that their family has been in Myanmar for at least three generations. The latter will be extremely difficult for Rohingya refugees to do because of the circumstances of their flight and the fact that many of their homes were burnt. At present, the repatriation process does not guarantee citizenship but is the Myanmar government putting in place procedures to begin this process?

Finally and most importantly, the issue of security has not been adequately addressed. The returnees fear potential threats from three groups: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Myanmar military and the local Rakhine community. ARSA has not been neutralized, there are many questions surrounding the Myanmar military’s involvement in the flight of the refugees, and the local Buddhist Rakhine communities are understandably fearful of more tensions created by the return of the refugees. What measures have been put in place to remove these threats, to bring about reconciliation and to create a secure environment for the communities living in the area?

Given the uncertainty surrounding security, infrastructure, logistics and citizenship, the Bangladesh government has made the right decision to postpone the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Dr Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.