Repatriation lacks protection
Repatriation of Rohingya lacks adequate protections
What is shocking is the fact the international community is maintaining a silence while witnessing two countries entering into a repatriation agreement to return a group of vulnerable people, considered the most persecuted minority in the world, to the place they face ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide and there is no reasonable arrangement for their safety, security, and basic human rights protection.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a controversial repatriation agreement for the return of the displaced Rohingyas to Rakhine State, Myanmar, at a time refugees are still arriving in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on a daily basis, indicating that the Rohingya population continues to face significant threat and violence in Myanmar.
Neither Bangladeshi nor Myanmar authorities have released a copy of the repatriation agreement, but some details have been revealed to the press.
A recent CNN report suggests “Myanmar agreed there would be no restrictions on the number of Rohingya allowed to return,” and that there would be “no legal consequences for refugees who voluntarily decided to return unless they had been involved with terrorism. All refugees would only return if they wished it, both countries agreed.”
Though these terms may sound promising, there are serious underlying legal and political problems to this agreement that must be considered carefully.
On a recent statement from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, indicated it was not a party to the agreement, though it was referenced in the document text.
While the UN encouraged both Bangladesh and Myanmar’s effort to work on a “comprehensive and durable” solution, the UN expressed its concerns about many Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh before and after Aug. 25 who have suffered severe violence and trauma.
The UN stated that Rohingya people “have lost family members, relatives, and friends. Many of their homes and villages have been torched and destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed and humanitarian access is inadequate. It is critical that the returns are not rushed or premature.”
The UN took the position that refugees will need “accurate information about the conditions in the areas of origin. Ultimately, their decision about their future must be their own well-informed choice.”
A recent International Rescue Committee survey in Cox’s Bazar found that “just 11 per cent of refugees wished to return to Myanmar, with the remaining 89 per cent wanting to either stay where they were or move to other sites in Bangladesh.”
While it might surprise some people to know that the overwhelming majority of Rohingya people do not wish to return to their homeland for which they have been struggling for decades, it is not surprising at all when their traumatic experience is taken into consideration.
What is shocking, however, is the fact the international community is maintaining a silence while witnessing two countries entering into a repatriation agreement to return a group of vulnerable people, considered the most persecuted minority in the world, to the place they face ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide and there is no reasonable arrangement for their safety, security, and basic human rights protection.
This is a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents one country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to another country in which they would likely face persecution on the basis of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
This repatriation agreement, which supposedly allows Rohingya people to return to Myanmar “at will,” in its core a quagmire.
It puts Rohingya people on a “Catch-22” situation, where if they return to Myanmar, they will have no assurance of safety and will likely face persecution.
On the other hand, if they refuse to return, it will only legitimize the disturbing narrative that Myanmar has been trying to establish that Muslim minorities in Myanmar are safe, did not join the exodus and those that left are Bengalis who do not want to live in Myanmar.
The repatriation arrangement refers to the establishment of a joint working group within three weeks of the signing, which is Thursday. However, in order to have any legitimacy and acceptance of this group, the UN and internationally reputable human rights group, such as Human Rights Watch as well as Rohingya representatives, must be made a part of this working group.
The group must work with both governments toward arrangements that would adequately address the concerns of the displaced Rohingya and enable them to exercise their right to return to their home — freely, safely and with dignity.
More importantly, adequate arrangements for the delivery of humanitarian aid must be ensured and Rohingya people must not be forced to return to the refugee camps in Myanmar, also described as concentration camps by the Time and Al-Jazeera.
Washim Ahmed is managing partner of OWS Law and serves as a spokesperson for the Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative. He holds an LL.M. from Osgoode Hall Law School.