Today marks the five-year anniversary of the latest Rohingya influx. Although an agreement to repatriate the refugees was reached by Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017, there is no visible progress in executing the deal.
Dr Nasir Uddin, refugee expert and professor at the Department of Anthropology, Chittagong University, delves into the whys.
What is the current situation in regard to sending Rohingya refugees to their homeland Myanmar?
Repatriation of Rohingya refugees is currently the main concern for Bangladesh. I think the repatriation process has not made any significant progress over the last five years. Bangladesh on the one hand allowed them to enter Bangladesh, and on the other hand initiated dialogue from day one to send them back.
The first dialogue took place in November 2017, which turned into a repatriation agreement, and a joint task force was formed in December 2017. Look, they began coming in August and Bangladesh took initiative in November to send them back. In January 2018, Physical Arrangement Agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar. According to its conditions, Myanmar will take all types of necessary preparation to take them back and from the day of the start of repatriation, they will complete the repatriation within two years.
Do you think there are loopholes in the Physical Arrangement Agreement?
There was nothing like that. The agreement says Myanmar will take all necessary steps to take them back. As Myanmar does not use the word 'Rohingya,' Bangladesh described them as forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals and created a database of 10 lakh 35 thousand such people.
On November 15, 2018, the first attempt of sending them back was taken but it failed. The next attempt was made on August 22, 2019, but it failed too. We were told that not a single Rohingya wanted to go back to Myanmar. Rohingyas had experienced a genocide and there was no change in the situation in Myanmar. There was no assurance that they would be safe there in Myanmar. Where would they live and would they get back the land they had left behind? And would they be given citizenship? From no level, no one gave them this assurance. Why would they go back?
We will have to bear in mind that there are four stakeholders in the repatriation process. Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Rohingyas and the international community. Myanmar will have to make promises that Rohingyas will be given security and the international community will have to force Myanmar to make these promises. The international community did not carry out its responsibility.
Myanmar was always reluctant on this issue. As a result, Bangladesh gave the names of 8 lakh 30 thousand Rohingyas. Myanmar identified only 40,000 to 43,000. Myanmar razed Rohingya villages to the ground, and built new infrastructure there to complicate things. How will the Rohingya go back? As a result, the repatriation attempt failed.
In 2020, when another attempt was made to resume the discussion for repatriation, the Covid-19 hit. Another meeting was held in January 2021. But in February, a military coup happened in Myanmar. Now the entire repatriation process is in a stalemate.
Is there any scope of resuming the negotiation and renewing the process with the Myanmar military government as the US-sanctioned country is under trial in the International Court of Justice?
The trial is in the International Court of Justice. Bangladesh is not a party in the trial. The Gambia filed the case. So there is no conflict of interest regarding resuming the negotiation. The US imposed sanctions because they have bilateral relations. Bangladesh has continued trade relations with Myanmar. That means, Bangladesh does not have any diplomatic crisis or tension with Myanmar.
What are the obstacles to the Rohingya repatriation?
The main reasons behind the stalemate in the repatriation process is the reluctance of Myanmar, the failure of the international community, including the UN Security Council, to reach agreement to act, the pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar.
You have noticed that in June the Rohingya staged a large-scale demonstration and said that they want to go back home. The main challenge is to execute how they will go back.
Interestingly, the international community always says that they will be there and they will look at the issue. They maintain the diplomatic norms but, on the ground, they do not take any effective measures.
Over the last five years, two major incidents took place, because of which international attention on the refugee issue has shifted. One is the political change in Afghanistan and the other is the Russia-Ukraine war. The international community has to deal with 80 lakh Ukraine refugees. The interest of the international community in the Rohingya is gradually fading. Also, after the military coup in Myanmar, no dialogue began with the military government.
Many security experts in Bangladesh say that as the military government is in power now, the dialogue Bangladesh initiated with the Suu Kyi-government has no future. This is not correct. We will have to bear in mind that the Suu Kyi-government did not enter into any agreement with Bangladesh without the consent of the military.
Also, when the Rohingya influx occured in 1978 and in 1991-92, Bangladesh made the first repatriation attempt and sent back 2 lakh 36 thousand Rohingyas following agreements with the then military government.
Do you feel Bangladesh has done enough for the Rohingya people in Bangladesh?
I strongly believe that Bangladesh has done more than enough for the Rohingya people. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention 1951. As such, Bangladesh is not legally bound to shelter any refugees on its land. But, on humanitarian grounds, Bangladesh has given shelter to the Rohingyas.
According to UN statistics, more than 7 lakh 25 thousand Rohingya entered Bangladesh in 2017. But we, who conduct research work on the ground level, think the number is much higher. Every week, 200-300 Rohingyas are still coming to Bangladesh. But no one in Bangladesh admits it.
There is a Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Committee (RRRC) under which camp-in-charges work. They are all government employees. For the Rohingya, the government deployed administrative manpower and law enforcement agencies. Bangladesh is providing logistics as well as administrative support there.
At the end of the first three years, our foreign minister said that Tk90 thousand crore was spent on the Rohingyas. That means every year the government is spending Tk30 thousand crore for the Rohingya. It is a big amount of money and Bangladesh has to spend that big amount of money for them.
You know, the whole world is facing an economic challenge now, and Bangladesh is not out of it. Even at this time, Bangladesh has to spend money on the Rohingya.
Bangladesh faced huge ecological damage to set up 34 camps in Ukhia and Teknaf area. Now there are more than 12 lakh Rohingya living there. Every year, 35 thousand children are born there. 4,500 acres of land, which has once been a forest, has completely been damaged.
The job market has been occupied. The Rohingya people come out of the camps secretly and work around the camps. In the past, the NGOs and INGOs recruited the local people; they are now deploying the Rohingya people.
People from international NGOs, foreign delegates, researchers and journalists are working there, creating demand. As a result, the overall cost of living has skyrocketed there. The local people have to pay the price.
The number of local people in Ukhia and Teknaf is around five lakh, whereas the number of Rohingya is 12 lakh. The local people have become a minority.
If you look at them from a human rights perspective, the condition in which they are living is not at all a good life. They deserve a better one.
What security threat and economic impact are there because of the Rohingya?
If you keep 12 lakh people at a place, some thieves, dacoits, and killers will be there. Bangladesh has border trading with Myanmar, but more of it is illegal than legal. Arms smugling, human trafficking, and yaba trading happens there. Non-Rohingya people do this illegal business but as the Rohingya people know the place well, they are being used.
Five or 10 thousand people are involved in those activities out of the 12 lakh Rohingyas. You cannot blame the whole community.
On the map of militancy, South Asia is a big hub, especially Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. There were militants like JMB in Bangladesh too. The militant chose the vulnerable for recruitment. The Rohingyas are predominantly Muslim and vulnerable communities. As a result, they can easily be recruited. It is not unnatural that Rohingya can be a security threat to regional stability.
How do you look at the government's initiative of relocating the Rohingya to Bhashanchar?
The government thought that if they relocate one lakh Rohingya to the Bhasanchar, there are two benefits. The Rohingya will get relief from the overcrowded camps. The second one is that the local people will get relief from the huge presence of Rohingya people. The government wanted to give the Rohingya a better life.
The Rohingyas are accustomed to kinship-based life. The government did not take into consideration their lifestyle and culture. The Rohingyas did not know that they would be taken to Bhasanchar. The government took 40 majhis (unit heads in a camp) so they could motivate the Rohingya to go there. But the majhis demotivated them. They said that there was confined life on the island.
From the beginning, the government did not involve the UN, as a result, the Rohingyas were suspicious about the motive of relocation. The government took a huge initiative in disaster management on the island. But this information did not reach the Rohingyas.
Bhasanchar has all kinds of facilities and logistic support and these facilities are far better than the camps in Ukhia and Teknaf. But the Rohingya did not have the real picture of the area.