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Urgency is Key for Rohingya Repatriation

By Nishan Kafle

Although the Rohingya of Burma have been subject to unrelenting government persecution for decades, it took an unprecedented form in 2017 when an estimated 530,000 Rohingya were violently driven from their home in Rakhine State in a military campaign that UN experts have called a genocide.

South Asia is no stranger to forced migration. Between 1991 and 1993, more than 100,000 Nepali speaking Bhutanese—commonly known as Lhotshampas—were forced out of Bhutan into Eastern Nepal. This was the result of the “One Nation, One People” policy, adopted in the 1980s, which aimed to shield the majority “Druk” Bhutanese identity from any Nepali influences. As a result, a mass exodus ensued with thousands of Bhutanese forced out of their homes into Eastern Nepal. Nepal, already a poor country under a strict monarchy, was ill-equipped to deal with such a great influx of refugees. And so, the Bhutanese were forced to live in squalid conditions under constant discrimination from people with whom they ostensibly shared a language and tradition.

Lhotshampas and the Rohingya were both evicted from their countries unlawfully. Xenophobia permeates both these cases, as each were expelled due to their minority or alien status. But the international community can end the similarities there if it learns the lessons of the past in its response to the Rohingya crisis. If it does so, it will realize that the only way forward is a campaign to immediately create the conditions for the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya.

In the early 1990s, the liberal world order was at its zenith with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US and other nations welcomed a large number of Bhutanese refugees (over 100,000) from the camps to their countries under ‘third country resettlement’—one of the three durable solutions recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

This solution would greatly alleviate the plight of the Rohingya, who are currently living in Bangladesh under increasingly deplorable conditions. However, this is now implausible because of the deterioration of said liberal order, with western countries increasingly adopting inward-looking foreign policies regarding refugee accommodation.

Local integration, another recommendation of the UNHCR for dealing with refugee crises, is also not viable in the Rohingya case. Why? Because the Bangladeshi government is suppressing assimilation of the Rohingya into Bengali culture.

In schools, the Rohingya are taught in English and Burmese, but not in Bengali, as that would ostensibly help in assimilation. The government has also cut internet and phone services as they fear it would lead to the recruitment of militants for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an armed militant group. Compounding these policies, Bangladesh is among the world’s most densely populated countries and is heavily resource-starved.

Regardless, local integration in Bangladesh is not acceptable for the Rohingya, as they wish to return home to Rakhine State. However, they have rejected recent attempts at repatriation — the third durable solution outlined by the UNHCR — brokered by Bangladeshi and Burmese officials. This is not surprising given the lack of change in conditions in Myanmar since their forced displacement. The Rohingya are still not safe, the government has not committed to granting them full civil rights, and the people behind their violent displacement still walk free.

So, while repatriation is the only viable solution, it is a pipe dream unless the international community forces Myanmar to create the conditions for the safe, dignified return of the Rohingya. Yet, it is critical to underscore the “time value” of repatriating Rohingya refugees now, as the potential for success may gradually weaken over time. During the Bhutanese refugee crisis in the 1990s, as more than 100,000 Bhutanese languished in refugee camps, Nepal could not garner international support in time, resulting in prolonged, deadly stays in camps. Bhutan declined to take any refugees back, claiming that they were illegal migrants. If the Rohingya are not repatriated safely with full citizenship or given refuge in welcoming countries soon, history could repeat itself—this time in Bangladesh.

The consequences of late action on this crisis are vast: statelessness of nearly a million people; untold suffering and deprivation of a whole people in a foreign country, validation of ethnic cleansing; and the reinforcement of impunity for genocide. As time passes, the chances of repatriation of refugees become slimmer and slimmer.

There were opportunities to save countless lives and cement the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese refugees nearly three decades ago. Some opportunities, if missed, never return.