Rohingya Repatriation Pilot Project: A Call for Comprehensive and Sustainable Solutions

Myanmar is preparing to repatriate Rohingya refugees under the pilot project. A 20-member Rohingya delegation led by Bangladesh Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammad Mizanur Rahman visited Rakhine on May 5 to verify the environment and situation there. The Rohingya delegation was accompanied by seven other members from various organizations including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the day-long visit, they visited at least 15 villages around Maungdaw township. This is undoubtedly the biggest step in starting the repatriation of Rohingyas, as Myanmar has prepared for taking back their nationals under a pilot project.

In a meeting with the Rohingya delegation held at the Maungdaw Transit Center during the visit, the Maungdaw Deputy Commissioner said that the Rohingyas returning from Bangladesh will be kept at the Maungdaw Transit Center for three days. Then transfer directly to Model Village. Then NVC (National Verification Certificate) will be given to the Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar. National identity cards will be issued in phases. However, opposing this proposal, the representatives demanded that citizenship be confirmed before repatriation and taken back directly to their own place of residence. Myanmar will initially repatriate 1,176 people under the pilot project.

More than 1.25 million Rohingya refugees are currently residing in 33 shelter camps in Ukhia and Teknaf. Out of them, 800,000 arrived from Rakhine State after August 25, 2017. Myanmar has agreed to repatriate the Rohingya twice in 2018 and 2019, but the Rohingyas have not convinced considering the security there. Myanmar’s lack of willingness to repatriate the Rohingya has led to a stalemate, and a single person has not been sent back in nearly six years. Nonetheless, prolonged confinement in the camps has changed the refugees’ mindset, and they are now eager to return to Myanmar.

It is clear from the demand for repatriation of Rohingyas through ‘Bari Chalo’ movement in Cox’s Bazar camps demanding repatriation in 2022. Meanwhile, they called on Myanmar and the international community to create a safe environment in Rakhine to ensure the honorable repatriation of the Rohingyas. In addition they have created public opinion within the camp in favor of repatriation.

China as a mediator

India and China, Myanmar’s two neighboring regional powers, failed to play any effective role in resolving the Rohingya crisis. On the contrary, due to geopolitical and economic reasons, the government of Myanmar gets all-out support from China and Russia. As a result, Myanmar was always reluctant to solve the Rohingya crisis through repatriation. In the past, China has talked about mediating the repatriation initiative several times, but this is yet to be facilitated. However, this year’s initiative is completely different, which can be understood from the observation of the delegation returning from Rakhine. Also, China’s efforts to facilitate repatriation have increased since last year.

Initiatives were taken to start the repatriation of Rohingyas in January 2022 with the mediation of China. At that time, the Myanmar government announced that 1140 people from the list of 800,000 Rohingya sent from Bangladesh would be taken back. Chinese Special Envoy Deng Xijun visited Myanmar’s Nay Pyi Taw in December last year and discussed repatriation with the junta government. In last April, he met Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and State Minister for Relief and Disaster Management Enamur Rahman. As a continuation of Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw talks, a tripartite meeting between Bangladesh and Myanmar was held in Kunming on April 18, mediated by China. Earlier in March, diplomats from eight countries including Bangladesh visited Rakhine.

On May 6, China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Yao Wen, said at a symposium that China, as an important responsible country, is “steadily mediating” between Bangladesh and Myanmar to speed up the repatriation of Rohingyas to their home country. It must be acknowledged that China’s desire to step into world leadership has played a major role in the recent move to facilitate repatriation. China’s role as a political mediator in various parts of the world is viewed by analysts as a strategy to assert dominance in global geopolitics. Re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the most recent instance. Similarly, China has been vocal in playing the role of a mediator in solving the Rohingya problem, even though it has taken a stand against taking action against Myanmar in various UN forums. It implies from their continued efforts that this time, the repatriation initiative through the mediation of China is becoming tangible.

Involvement of the UN and the West

Bangladesh wants UNHCR to support the repatriation initiative. According to the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, UNHCR is supposed to carry out the repatriation of Rohingya in Rakhine. But strained relations with the military junta on the one hand, and China’s mediation on the other, the reluctance of Western donors has left the organization unwilling to engage in the repatriation process. Last March, the organization commented that the situation in Rakhine State was not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees. They also clarified that they are not involved in Bangladesh and Myanmar talks on repatriation.

Western countries have been against the persecution of Rohingya since the beginning. Although they could not take any major measures against Myanmar, they have always put Myanmar under pressure in various global forums including the United Nations. They have also played a major role in financing the largest refugee camp in the world for almost 6 years. In particular, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is conducting various welfare activities for the refugees, including fundraising for the Rohingya. Most of this funding comes from Western donors. The main donors of the fund, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union have not shown any way to a sustainable solution to this problem. The absence of their enthusiasm towards the pilot project and the UN’s non-involvement will raise doubts about their stance on the issue of repatriation. Therefore, to ensure sustainable repatriation, UNHCR should be involved in the pilot project and ensure Myanmar’s accountability for the proper environment and security of repatriation.

Goodwill of Rohingyas to ensure repatriation

After returning from Rakhine, Bangladesh government representatives expressed their satisfaction. They told the media that the environment there is completely favorable for the repatriation of Rohingyas. A model village has been built for the rehabilitation of Rohingyas and 1 acre of land has been allotted to each family for farming. Each village has a hospital, a mosque for worship and a field for sports. In addition to the opportunity for children to study in the school, there are opportunities for Rohingyas to conduct business and other income generating activities.

However, after the visit, some of the Rohingya representatives told that the proper environment for repatriation has not yet been created. Their villages were destroyed and army and police barracks and posts were built there. As a result, their return to their old place is still uncertain. They said that Rohingyas are not willing to return as guests through NVC, but should start repatriation with citizenship.

On the contrary, a group of Rohingyas says that some Rohingyas should respond to repatriation to understand the situation in Rakhine. By means of this, the genuine state of affairs in Rakhine will be revealed firsthand, shedding light on the attitude and intentions of the Myanmar government. If not, it will remain unknown and the crisis would be prolonged. 

Security and guarantee of citizenship have always been the major concern of the Rohingyas on the repatriation issue. Nevertheless, under the current circumstances, the Rohingyas should respond to this move by the Myanmar government. Since no such large-scale steps have been taken by Myanmar before and no transparency has been ensured, the first two steps have given the Rohingyas plenty of reason for concern. But this time the initiative is completely different and the matter of Myanmar’s sincerity in ensuring repatriation has also come up in the comments of the Bangladeshi delegation. Therefore, Rohingyas should at least respond to this experimental initiative by Myanmar to break the long-standing deadlock and start the first phase of repatriation.

[Photo by Masum-al-Hasan Rocky, via Wikimedia Commons]

Abdullah Sadi is a researcher on South Asia’s political economy and international politics. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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