Breaking a Cycle of Exodus: Past Failures to Protect Rohingya Refugees Should Shape Future Solutions


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Breaking a Cycle of Exodus: Past Failures to Protect Rohingya Refugees Should Shape Future Solutions
By Kathleen Dock — is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the Transforming Conflict & Governance program at the Stimson Center, Washington, D.C, USA.

“[This] exodus is a replay of 1978. If return follows the same pattern as 1979, refugees will reintegrate into the closed, conservative and segregated communities they left behind… They will not integrate into Arakanese or Burmese society or economy. They might be left in comparative peace for a few years, as they were after 1979, but real or imagined persecution will eventually resurface.” – UNHCR Report, 1993

In August 2017, the international community watched as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians fled their homes in Rakhine State following a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military, which included crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Over one million Rohingya refugees now live in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

This exodus is not without precedent. In 1978 and from 1991-1992, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following similar violence and persecution by the military. In both the 1970s and the 1990s, the majority of these refugees returned to Myanmar within a few years. These repatriation operations were premature and unsafe despite the presence of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is mandated with refugee protection.

This report looks at today’s crisis through the lens of these earlier displacements and identifies factors for the international community and United Nations to consider that contributed to a cycle of exodus in the past. This work is based on original research in the UNHCR archives, which reveals that in both the 1970s and the 1990s, UNHCR was unable – and in some cases unwilling – to carry out a safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation. This research aims to identify some of the reasons how and why previous protection efforts were insufficient in order to assess how key actors can more effectively respond to the current crisis.

In 1993, a report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) predicted that the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar would persist following a UNHCR-facilitated repatriation from Bangladesh. Robert Cooper, a British diplomat and the report’s author, wrote that though “not carved in stone,” persecution would resurface and likely amount to another exodus.  

Cooper’s prediction proved true. Persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine State continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Outbursts of violence against the Rohingya increased in 2012 and 2016 and reached unprecedented levels in August 2017 when the Myanmar military razed hundreds of villages, killed thousands of civilians, and engaged in rampant sexual and gender-based violence. While Myanmar has framed this campaign as a response to attacks on security posts by Rohingya militants, the operation appeared premeditated, highly organized, and heavily disproportionate.  Since then, an estimated 745,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.

The Rohingya: A History of Persecution — The Rohingya – a distinct, predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State – have faced generations of systematic discrimination. Rakhine State, or Arakan, was an independent kingdom before the Burman empire conquered the land in 1784. The Rohingya claim to be descendants of these original Arakanese who encountered Islam in the 9th century by mixing with Muslim traders, warriors, and slaves from the Arab peninsula, Central Asia, and Bengal.

In 1885, the British incorporated Burma into their empire, and colonization exacerbated already existing ethnic divides. Tensions were heightened during World War II, as the Rohingya allied with the British, while the ethnic Rakhine population allied with the Japanese. Following Burma’s independence in 1948, the new government recognized the Rohingya as Burmese nationals. Yet in 1962, when General Ne Win seized control of the country and established a military dictatorship, ethnic- and religious-based nationalism began to rise. Authorities accused the Rohingya of being illegal immigrants who first settled in Burma during British rule. Particularly as the Burmese identity became increasingly tied to Buddhism, the government and public have increasingly viewed the Muslim Rohingya as “invaders,” and “outsiders.”

Rohingya have been subject to forced labor, land seizures, restrictions on freedom of movement, and denial of education and employment. Most significantly, Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law grants citizenship based on membership in one of the “national races,” which recognizes 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya are not on the list, effectively rendering most Rohingya stateless. The government will not use the word ‘Rohingya,’ denying their identity and existence as a distinct ethnic group.

This systematic discrimination has periodically escalated to active violence. In 1977, the military launched an operation to register citizens and prosecute illegal immigrants. Mass arrests, violence, and brute force caused over 200,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. In 1991, operations in Rakhine State picked up once again – this time, under the premise of targeting Rohingya Muslim extremists. 250,000 Rohingya poured into Bangladesh, recounting forced labor, rape, extrajudicial killings, and torture.

These instances of heightened violence against the Rohingya triggered an exodus, soon followed by repatriation – cycles that will be explored further in this report. ##


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