27 Jan
  • By CRDI

Voluntary Repatriation a Must

Repatriation should be Voluntary and Welled- inform

By Aman Ullah

Aman Ullah

“Refugees are people who vote with their feet” once Lenin said. There is no doubt that the over one million-odd refugee from Myanmar, who have been sheltered in Bangladesh, have indeed voted with their feet. Their reluctance to return to their homes in Arakan is hardly induced by the attractions of sub-human living conditions in their camps of Bangladesh.

Hence, in recent days, hundreds of refugees have gathered, holding banners, chanting slogans and demanding citizenship and guarantees of security before they return to Rakhine. Five senior Rohingya leaders met with UN special rapporteur Ms Lee in Cox’s Bazar during her visit and handed her a list of their demands before repatriation would be considered.

Many believe only strong action by the international community can break the impasse. Bangladesh tried it best, now it should hand over the responsibility to the international community. Refugees must go to relieve Bangladesh of the big burden but they must go with safety and guarantee for full security in Rakhine state.

Since August 25, about 700,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh fleeing persecution in Myanmar, making Bangladesh the fourth largest host country for refugees. This is ever largest refugee crisis since WWII which Bangladesh, an overpopulated country, has now to face. Antonio Guterre, the UN Secretary-General, termed it as “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency”. The situation is so dire that the UN human rights chief has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” while the rights bodies termed it as genocide and crime against humanity.

It is estimated by a leading think tank that Bangladesh would need Tk 7,126 crore to provide food, shelter and other support to the Rohingyas until June next year. And that is because humanitarian support provided by international organizations may not continue for long, which means that Bangladesh will have to bear the majority of the expense, and should be wary of security risks, terrorism, the spread of diseases, trafficking of women and children and illegal drug trade in the south-eastern region.

The Bangladesh government has been globally lauded—and rightfully so—for welcoming with open arms, once again, the persecuted Rohingya people with whom the country has a checkered history. The Rohingyas came to Bangladesh in droves in 1978, 1992, and the 2010s.

Refugee crises are ridden with dilemmas. It is a dilemma for the oppressed to leave or stay; a dilemma for governments to condemn or remain silent; a dilemma for countries to refuse or let refugees in. And once they’ve done their part to take in a certain “quota”, there’s yet again a dilemma about doing “too much” for fear that this would act as a pull factor. This has been the case with the Rohingya refugees who have come to Bangladesh in previous exoduses and have had to face restrictions such as limited access to education and no permission to work despite being here for decades.

Refugee management is not one-man show business and on the other hand Bangladesh—which is no stranger to hosting refugees—has not been able to do a better job of refugee management, particularly with regard to the Rohingya. A major reason behind Bangladesh’s inability to better manage the crisis is the utter failure of the international community to pressurize the Myanmar government into bringing an end to the repression of the minority in the first place so that Rohingya refugees stranded in Bangladesh would feel confident enough to go back.

On November 23, 2017, Bangladesh hastily signed the deal with Myanmar in the first place and again on January 16. Though it is international crisis and UN has a mandatory role to find the solution to such problem, no international organizations were involved in this deal.

It is an international crisis and an international organization like the UNO has a mandatory role to find the solution to such problems. If the UNHCR and other human rights organizations were involved, the agreement would have taken care of international standards in the deal to protect the interest of all three parties. It was very essential to enable the UNHCR to fulfil its protection mandate and ensure that the refugees were returned voluntarily in conditions of safety and dignity.

The deal was not properly made and the refugee representatives were not allowed to participate. Even their demands had not been considered. The MOU provided for the involvement of UNHCR on the Bangladesh side in the repatriation process.

The fate of the Rohingya repatriation deal was bound to falter from the beginning. The repatriation was scheduled to start from January 23 as per the latest arrangement signed with Naypyitaw on January 16, but it did not start as officials pointed out incomplete process and a lot more need to be done to ensure safe return on the voluntary basis. Bangladesh official said it has been delayed but virtually none can say when the process will complete; because the agreement with Myanmar can’t deliver the much-needed guarantee in absence of guarantee for safety.

So the repatriation did not start on last Tuesday, the stipulated date to start it, but Myanmar government blamed Bangladesh for failing to start the repatriation. It said they have all preparations to receive the refugees; they have set up rehabilitation centres but it is Bangladesh government failed.
The fact is that despite the hurriedly signed agreement, Rohingyas are not willing to return to face the same persecution and the international community is equally supportive of Rohingyas denial to move to uncertain future once again. Many of them returned to Rakhine state on earlier occasions only to be killed or flee again to Bangladesh to escape from the ethnic cleansing.

They want strong undertaking now from the Myanmar government and the international community about the restoration of their citizenship, right to free movement and access to health, education, livelihood and the most important thing- their security and safety in the homeland.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, which is involving with the big humanitarian crisis from its beginning has demanded outright suspension of the bilateral deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the return of the Rohingyas. It has suggested rewriting the deal involving the UNHCR as the third party to take care of the interest of the refugees.

It said Myanmar has shown no ability to ensure a safe, dignified, and voluntary return of the Rohingyas as provided by international standards.

“Rohingya refugees should not be returned to camps guarded by the very same Burmese forces which forced them to flee in the face of massacres, gang rapes, and torched their villages,” a statement of the organization said last week when the deal falters from its own shortfall. Myanmar is exploiting the deal as a “public relations ploy” when it has not taken measures to ensure the safe and sustainable return of the refugees. Bangladesh is an unwilling hostage to endure with Rohingya crisis.

As per the plan, Rohingya would be first sheltered in temporary transit camps In Myanmar but there is no certainty that they will be permanently rehabilitated in their abandoned villages and will be allowed run farming and business like regular Myanmar citizens.

The voluntary repatriation agreement is problematic for four reasons. Firstly, Myanmar does not seem to have the political will to take back Rohingya refugees. It had agreed to sign the repatriation agreement simply under diplomatic pressure. Secondly, Rakhine is nowhere near safe for the Rohingya to return home. The anti-muslim sentiment is deeply entrenched in the state. Thirdly, Myanmar is taking back people only if they are able to prove their residence and finally, there is still uncertainty on what extent is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) going to involved in the repatriation process.

Moreover, according to the UNHCR’s statute:-
1. Repatriation should be voluntary, which includes two elements: freedom of choice and an informed decision
2. repatriation should take place under conditions of safety and dignity:
3. safety and dignity in connection with voluntary repatriation focuses on the repatriation process itself and after return
4. the two voluntary repatriation methods commonly distinguished are organized and Spontaneous

The decision to repatriate should be a voluntary one. This requirement is more than a matter of principle, a return which is voluntary is more likely to be lasting and sustainable. A voluntary decision implies two elements: freedom of choice (which relates to the situation in the country of asylum) and an informed decision (which relates to the situation in the country of origin). As a general rule, UNHCR should be convinced that the positive pull-factors in the country of origin are an overriding element in the refugees’ decision to return, rather than possible push factors in the host country or negative pull-factors, such as threats to property, in the home country.

Safety and Dignity:

Repatriation should not only be voluntary, it should take place under conditions of safety and dignity.

Return in safety is one that takes place under conditions of Legal safety: such as amnesties, public assurances of personal safety, integrity, freedom from fear of persecution or arbitrary punishment on return, citizenship status, Physical security: including protection from armed attacks and mines and Material security: access to land and property, means of a livelihood and for children an education as well.

The concept of dignity is less self-evident than safety. The dictionary definition of dignity contains elements of “serious, composed, worthy of honour and respect.” In practice it means that refugees are not manhandled, that they can return unconditionally and if they are doing so spontaneously they can do so at their own pace, that they are not arbitrarily separated from family members; and that they are treated with respect by the authorities and full acceptance by the national authorities, including the full restoration of their rights.

Otherwise, the hasty repatriation process without involvement of UNHCR and other international community might pave the way to all the Rohingya refugees for jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

About The CRDI