For years, the people of Rohingya have been victims of persecution in the Buddhist majority country. The latest mass killings, which escalated in August 2017, were described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, leading more than 623,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is becoming one of the world’s most crowded settlements of asylum seekers. An estimate of 837,000 Rohingyans settled in Bangladesh to date, with only 30,000 being officially registered. International media highlighted the generosity of the people of Bangladesh towards their fellow Muslims in times of despair. The government has allocated 3000 acres of land to the refugees. But with the deterioration of the situation, talk of terrorists along the borders and the cheap labour of Rohingyans affecting Bangladeshi jobs, it seems as though the Bangladeshi generosity has run out.
Situation In Camps
Bangladesh opened its arms to “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis” with not much to offer but its lands. This is not the first time the country has opened its borders to great masses, in the 1970s some 11,900 died in Bangladeshi camps after the Rohingyas’ movement was restricted and food rations failed to arrive. A worrying precedent.
During the past months, the situation in Cox Bazar has been deteriorating. The overcrowded camp suffers from poor sanitation, wells fouled by nearby latrines and malnutrition. According to the World Health Organization, More than 60 percent of the water supply in the camps is contaminated with bacteria. Additionally, a number of rapidly spreading diseases have been recorded such as cholera, measles and a recent outbreak of diphtheria. UNICEF says a quarter of the Rohingya Muslim children under the age of five who crossed into Bangladesh fleeing violence in Myanmar suffer from potentially life-threatening acute malnutrition. But with all this in mind, the solution could hardly be for the refugees to return back to the atrocities they fled.
Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have assembled a working group to arrange the repatriation of Rohingyas back to their villages. The two governments signed an agreement in November allowing for repatriations from January 23. Senior minister Obaidul Quader said a list of 100,000 names is to be sent to Myanmar authorities so repatriations could start in late January under an accord between the two governments. But the question remains whether the Rohingyas would willingly return to a state which only weeks ago raided their villages and committed atrocities beyond one’s imagination?
There is clearly a sense of anxiety in Cox Bazar regarding the future options for refugee repatriation, and doubts amongst humanitarian aid groups too. Previous influxes of Rohingyas, in 1978 and then 1991, involved repatriation which some NGOs feared was forced rather than voluntary. Though very little details of the recent agreement were released, a CNN report suggests that according to a Bangledeshi press release, “all refugees would only return if they wished it”. The UNHCR stressed that “it is critical that the returns are not rushed or premature”. Others worry about the genuinity of these efforts, taking in mind Myanmar’s long standing history of resentment for the Rohingya. This deal could simply be a defense used by the Myanmese government against international criticism.
The details of the agreement which have been disclosed so far make little mention of protecting the Rohingyas who have been described as “the most persecuted minority in the world”. Insufficient assurances have been given for their return. To go ahead with the repatriation agreement in these conditions, especially with the presence of force, would be to throw them back to danger. This is a deeply traumatized population, many of whom suffered or witnessed acts of horrific violence, it is unlikely that they would willingly return for the time being. No repatriation should take place without first addressing the root causes, monitored by the UN. Another concern is whether those responsible for committing these horrendous crimes against the Rohingyas will ever be held accountable?