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The Rohingya Refugee Crisis: Rethinking Solutions and Accountability
By Brian Gorlick – Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies, University of Oxford — December 2019
An estimated one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar reside in a mega-camp outside Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Several hundred thousand internally displaced ethnic Rohingya remain in Myanmar. Durable solutions are not forthcoming. This paper reviews the situation in Myanmar and the regional, political and operational limitations including within the United Nations to assert voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh will remain evasive. While the humanitarian situation on the ground is evolving, and justice and accountability measures are progressing at the same time political and diplomatic efforts continue to push for resolution of the crisis, there is a need to explore other solutions and mitigation measures available under international law and practice, and in doing so ensure the voices of the Rohingya are heard.
This paper reviews the current situation in Myanmar and the regional, political and operational limitations – including within the UN – to argue why voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya is not forthcoming. While the humanitarian situation on the ground is evolving and political and diplomatic efforts continue to push for resolution of the crisis, there is a risk of waning international interest which may result in reduced resources and donor contributions.
Justice and accountability measures, in whatever form, are a long-term effort and may take years. Whether the eventual success of these initiatives will facilitate or possibly frustrate voluntary repatriation is unclear. Whatever efforts are made on their behalf, Rohingya refugees must be consulted and heard in order to make any solutions credible, acceptable and durable.
The mass influx of several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh which began in 2017 was shocking and dramatic, but not unprecedented. Smaller yet significant forced movements of ethnic Rohingya to Bangladesh occurred in 1942, 1978, 1991, 2012 and 2016. Over the years, thousands of individual Rohingya have travelled to Bangladesh for medical treatment and studies prior to the most recent influx. Some never returned home.
In the 1990s as a result of closed camp settings and the absence of long-term integration prospects, a repatriation exercise based on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Bangladesh government and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took place between 1993–1997, with some 230,000 Rohingya returning to Myanmar. Sub-standard living conditions, the absence of legal and human rights protection, political exclusion, questionable voluntariness and returnees being poorly informed of what they would encounter once back in Myanmar resulted in this operation being soundly criticized.2 The presence of a large number of armed officers engaged in the repatriation exercise in the 1970s has been also been acknowledged.3 Indeed earlier attempts at repatriation of Rohingya refugees in the 1970s and 1990s are regarded as regrettable low-points in UNHCR’s operational history in the Asia region.
History risks repeating itself.5 Although the UN and international community place much emphasis on ‘lessons learned’, the current scenario of the Rohingya crisis with its strong emphasis on repatriation requires critical examination. The systematic disenfranchisement, discrimination and absence of human rights protection and discrimination against the Rohingya, one of over a hundred ethnic groups of diverse religions residing in the territory of Myanmar since the 12th century, has been extensively documented. While it has been argued the historical presence of the Rohingya in present day Myanmar is a result of colonial nation state design under questionable principles and practices of international law, the fact remains they have resided in Myanmar for generations. As much as any territory, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar can be considered the Rohingya’s country of origin and homeland.
What is different this time in the quest for repatriation is a vigorous response on human rights and accountability issues initiated largely through the UN. There is also enormous media attention to the crisis, and credible claims of crimes against humanity and possibly genocide having taken place. The FFM’s 444-page report released in September 2018, and its subsequent reports, provide an unprecedented amount of information including names of individuals alleged to have committed the most serious crimes and human rights violations against Rohingya men, women, and children.
The final report of the FFM drew the following conclusion:
Some 600,000 Rohingya are estimated to remain in Rakhine State. They continue to be subjected to discriminatory policies and practices, including segregation and severe restrictions on their movements; deprivation of citizenship; denial of economic, social and cultural rights; physical assaults constituting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary arrest; and, in some areas, hostility from members of ethnic Rakhine communities that the mission found also to constitute persecution and other prohibited crimes against humanity. The Government of Myanmar claims that it would welcome back Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh. In the light of the continuing persecution of remaining Rohingya, the legal conditionalities placed on return and the unacceptable living conditions that await returnees, the mission regards these statements and associated measures as lacking sincerity.