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Rohingya Repatriation: The booklet diplomacy

June 9, 2023 Shahariar Sadat, Azizul Haque, and Arafat Reza

The plight of Rohingya refugees is not unknown to anyone at this point. The Rohingya people have been recognised by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted minority group. It is well established that they have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in Myanmar. That being the case, forced migration of the Rohingya people to neighbouring countries, most notably Bangladesh, is not new. In fact, Rohingya people have had to flee their Myanmar homeland to Bangladesh in large numbers since 1784.

By far the largest and fastest mass displacement of Rohingya people to Bangladesh occurred in August 2017 when unarmed Rohingya civilians fled attacking Myanmar military across Rakhine State. During this attack, the State military killed more than 24000 people, gang-raped women, burned villages and separated families. This has caused immeasurable human misery and a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale. Bangladesh generously welcomed the Rohingya people on each occasion despite facing many challenges including overpopulation and limited resources. About one million Rohingya refugees are now staying in camps in the Cox’s Bazar district and on the island of Bhasan Char.

Informed observers might recall that three months after the Rohingyas were forced out of Rakhine, Myanmar’s government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh for their repatriation. With two subsequent failed repatriation attempts in 2018 and 2019 because Rohingya refugees were fearful of their safety on returning to Myanmar, no progress has been seen regarding the repatriation of Rohingya refugees thus far. However, in recent months, Myanmar has attempted to display its intent to repatriate the Rohingya people.

In March of this year, diplomats from eight countries, including Bangladesh, India, and China, were taken to Rakhine, where officials from the Myanmar government demonstrated the preparations they had made for the Rohingya refugees. Soon after, a delegation from the Myanmar government arrived in Cox’s Bazar to interview Rohingya refugees for verification of their documents. But this move by Myanmar was heavily criticised because it was perceived by many to be a part of a PR campaign to complement their counterargument for the Rohingya genocide case at the ICJ.

Numerous international organisations, including the UNHCR, expressed deep concerns over these developments. Based on their assessments, they believed that conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were not yet suitable for sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.

Nevertheless, on May 5, a delegation consisting of 20 Rohingya representatives and 7 officials, including a border guard officer and 3 women, was sent to visit Myanmar to see various pilot facilities created for repatriation.

During the visit, a booklet, printed in three languages, Bangla, English, and Burmese, was distributed. The booklet provided a detailed account of the facilities that would be provided  and the conditions the Rohingya people were expected to meet to avail themselves of the facilities promised in the booklet. Some members of the delegation thought the measures were conducive to starting repatriation, while others claimed the conditions were too difficult for the refugees to meet.

Hafiz Solaiman, who was interviewed by AFP, for example, said, “We are not ready to take a single step towards Myanmar. The arrangement they made for us isn’t enough for our safety. We also have not got any justice for the persecution done to us before.”

However, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, Cox’s Bazar Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), who led the delegation, said, “During the visit to Maungdaw city in Myanmar, we saw that the situation has improved greatly. Around 80% of the people are Rohingyas and they are moving freely and doing business there. Favourable conditions for repatriation have been observed there.”

Against this backdrop, in the following paragraphs, we examine the contents of the booklet mentioned above, as a careful reading revealed a lot about Myanmar’s intention to repatriate the Rohingya refugees among other things.

To begin with, this booklet has not, even  once, acknowledged the Rohingya people as Myanmar nationals. Instead, they have used rather vague terms to address them, such as “displaced persons”, “returnees”, and “anyone”. This reflects the apartheid mindset of the Junta government.  The legal status of the Rohingya people needs to be changed and Myanmar must expressly grant them rights as full citizens. Until this happens, there is no hope of the Rohingya’srights being enforced upon their return.

Second, the booklet states that every returnee will be provided with humanitarian assistance, including clothing, blankets, and soaps. A full list of items to be included in the humanitarian assistance packages is not included in the booklet. A review of the full list of provisions is needed to ensure all relevant and necessary items will be included. It must be noted that it does not expressly mention whether medicines will be provided. But providing necessary medicines to the returnees should be a top priority.

Third, returnees will be provided daily meals at the Taung Pyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya Reception Centers. It is not clear how often the meals will be provided  and whether they carry adequate and appropriate nutritional value. Adaquate nutrition is important because malnutrition is prevalent among Rohingya refugees, especially women and children. In 2020, for example, over 11% of Rohingya children reportedly suffered acute malnutrition, and more than 30% sustained chronic malnutrition.

Fourth, the booklet does not clearly state the facilities available at the Hla Phoe Khaung Transit Center, Taung Pyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya Reception Centers. So, the question of whether these facilities will ensure safety and security of repatriated refugees remains unanswered.

Additionally, it states that 15,000 kyats per month will be provided to every pregnant woman and child under the age of two for three months, 10,000 kyats per month will be provided to every elder over the age of 85 for three months, and 30,000 kyats will be provided to every disabled person for one time. These amounts are grossly insufficient. To put things into perspective, estimated monthly cost of living for a single person (excluding rent) in Myanmar, is 1,015,751 Kyats. The estimated cost of a typical fast food meal is 10,890 kyats for a McMeal at McDonalds or BurgerKing (or similar combo meal), and 3,350 kyats for a cheeseburger. In northern Rakhine State, a bag of rice now costs around 85,000 kyats and one pound of onions costs about 8,000 kyats. The list of recipients should also be expanded to include all repatriated refugees until they are resettled in the country with a sustainable income.

It is also stated in the booklet that returnees will be granted permission to farm on suitable land plots in designated villages. They will receive paddy seeds, annual and perennial crops (seeds and saplings), fertilizers, farming tools, and cultivation training. It is not stated whether right to farm would include the rights to own the harvest and sell it in the market. The indication of suitable plots in designated villages displays a authoritarian attitude which promotes segregation within the society.

According to the booklet, relevant registration (ID) cards, including National Verification Cards (NVC), will be issued to the returnees though they do not guarantee citizenship, but rather allow holders to apply for it. Although the booklet contains a section titled “Process of NVC and its benefits,” nowhere has the process been explained. The section does not contain a specific list of documents. It does not mention any office or authority where such application needs to be submitted. It needs to be noted that strict requirements attached to the issuing of NVC and granting of citizenship may exclude the majority of Rohingya refugees since many of them have lost necessary documents when they fled their own country. Failure to obtain NVC and eventually to gain citizenship may make them permanently internally displaced or back to their refugee life.

The booklet further states that livestock breeders will be trained and educated on livestock production, disease prevention and management through training and seminars. Fish breeders and those interested in fish farming will receive training in basic fish farming and breeding. Training courses in pastry making and sewing will be provided to returnee women. While it mentions training relating to income generating activities, it does not mean that such training will lead to doing legitimate business, access to market and generate income.

Arrangements have been made to provide  primary, middle, and high school students with textbooks and exercise books. Furthermore, children of the repatriated Rohingya refugees are allowed to attend schools near their resettled villages to pursue their basic education. The concern here is that the booklet says nothing about whether or not those who were forced to discontinue their studies and flee to Bangladesh will be allowed to complete their education, or how big of an education gap will be accepted. It is also silent on whether and under what conditions returnees will be granted access to secondary and tertiary education.

Last but not least, unsurprisingly, the issue of access to justice is totally absent in the booklet. Access to justice is one of the most crucial elements for Rohingya repatriation and reintegration in Myanmar society. The Junta government has typically ignored this issue,further demonstrating its oppressive attitude andthe current state of Myanmar as an apartheid state.

We, the authors, think that such a half-hearted attempt by the Junta government is to pacify the international public opinion and create a justification before they appear in front of ICJ. It can also be regarded as an attempt  to create division within the Rohingyas and among various humanitarian actors in Bangladesh. The booklet is a poorly drafted document and outdated as it refers to protocols of COVID-19 several times. We feel that all concerned stakeholders in this crisis should not be misled by this booklet diplomacy of the Junta government.