More than 740,000 people fled their homes in Myanmar after violence that began in August, 2017. Young and old arrived hungry, exhausted and with almost nothing. Most now live in makeshift camps in the Cox’s Bazaar district. More than half are women and children who depend on international aid for their most basic needs.
Bangladesh is now hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas and most of them entered the country since August 25, 2017.
On August 20, Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said both Bangladesh and Myanmar are “fully ready” to resume the repatriation of Rohingyas to their homeland but some Rohingya leaders and NGOs are reportedly discouraging them to return.
“We’ve heard some Rohingya leaders emerged there. They don’t want the return of any Rohingya (to their homeland). They’re trying to stop returnees. Some INGOs and NGOs are instigating them (Rohingyas),” he told a small group of reporters at his office.
He said Bangladesh wants to see Rohingyas’ return to Rakhine State as soon as possible. The two countries are trying to resume the repatriation in a small scale from Thursday.
“We want the safe and secure return of the Rohingya and free mobility in their own region. Myanmar has agreed on that,” Dr Momen said adding that many Rohingyas are willing to go back.
The Foreign Minister mentioned that Rohingyas are looking for mainly citizenship and they, as per their demand, will not go until the citizenship is given.
“Myanmar is saying it’s a process,” Dr Momen said adding that Rohingyas will get cards after their return and then they have a process of getting citizenship.
On July 29, Bangladesh handed a fresh list of 25,000 Rohingyas from around 6,000 families to Myanmar for verification before their repatriation to Rakhine State.
With the latest list, Bangladesh has so far handed the names of around 55,000 Rohingyas to the Myanmar authorities and around 8,000 of them have been verified.
Dr Momen said Myanmar only cleared 3,450 Rohingyas for beginning repatriation. “We want them to go back as soon as possible.”
He said peace in the region will be hampered if their stay becomes longer in Bangladesh. Peace in the region depends on peaceful resolution of Rohingya problem, Dr Momen added.
Responding to a question, Dr Momen said China is very much involved in it and is helping Bangladesh convince Myanmar to take back their nationals.
He also discussed the Rohingya repatriation issue with visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar at a bilateral meeting on August 20 in Dhaka.
On Rohingya issue, Jaishankar said they agreed that the “safe, speedy and sustainable” return of Rohingyas to their place of origin in Rakhine is in the national interest of the three countries -- Bangladesh, Myanmar and India.
“We reaffirmed our readiness to provide more assistance for the displaced persons in Bangladesh and to improve socioeconomic condition in Rakhine State,” he said.
The Indian minister appreciated the humanitarian gesture of Bangladesh in supporting a large number of displaced people from Rakhine and assured India’s continued support for their safe, speedy and sustainable return to Myanmar.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed the repatriation deal on November 23, 2017. On January 16, 2018 Bangladesh and Myanmar inked a document on “Physical Arrangement”, which was supposed to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to their homeland.
The “Physical Arrangement” stipulates that the repatriation will be completed preferably within two years from the start.
The first batch of Rohingyas was scheduled to return on November 15 last year but it was halted amid unwillingness of Rohingyas to go back for lack of a congenial environment in Rakhine.
MSF sees no solutions in sight for Rohingyas
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has said very little progress has been made to address the lack of legal status for the Rohingya in the region, or to address the underlying causes of the Rohingyas’ exclusion in Myanmar.
A marginalised ethnic minority from Rakhine state, the Rohingya have in recent decades been subject to mounting targeted state exclusion and persecution, it said adding that two years ago, news of Myanmar’s campaign of violence against the Rohingya dominated the headlines.
MSF Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar Arunn Jegan said he first came to Cox’s Bazar in June 2017, at a time when thousands of Rohingya were already in Bangladesh from previous waves of targeted violence.
Even then, he said, the needs were massive. “I returned as project coordinator that August, as hundreds of thousands more people arrived. It was obvious the Rohingya were fleeing violence – in one two-week period between August and September 2017, we watched pillars of smoke, most likely from houses and villages being burned, at several points across the border.”
At the border crossings, he said they saw Rohingya arriving with burns, gunshots, lacerations, and smoke asphyxiation. “The trauma was visible on people’s faces and bodies.”
To date no meaningful solutions have been offered to the Rohingya, who have been pushed to the margins of society in virtually all the countries they have fled to.
In Bangladesh, Rohingyas still live in the same basic bamboo structures as when they first arrived, face travel and work restrictions, and remain wholly reliant on humanitarian aid, MSF said.
With children unable to attend formal schooling, future generations are deprived of an opportunity to improve their situation.
Many of the illnesses MSF treats at its clinics in Cox’s Bazar are a result of the poor living conditions that the Rohingya endure, with poor access to clean latrines or water.
MSF continues to treat tens of thousands of patients a month, performing over 1.3 million consultations between August 2017-June 2019.
“Two years on, there are now better roads, more latrines and clean water points in and around the camps. There is more sense of order. But conditions in the camps remain precarious and big questions about people’s futures are still unanswered,” says Jegan.
The situation facing the Rohingya still in Myanmar is similarly bleak. In 1982, a citizenship law rendered them effectively stateless, and in recent years they have been stripped of even more of their rights, ranging from civic inclusion, the right to education, marriage, family planning, to freedom of movement and access to healthcare.
In 2012, violence between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities left entire villages razed. Since then, some 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims in central Rakhine have lived in overcrowded and squalid displacement camps. Denied freedom of movement and jobs, as well as access to basic services, they likewise rely entirely on humanitarian assistance.
An estimated 550,000 to 600,000 Rohingya remain across Rakhine State, according to MSF. Their already difficult lives have become harder as they and other communities suffer the consequences of a worsening conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group.
Jegan said, “When I think of the future for the Rohingya, my biggest hope is that they are able to return home safely. Until then, I hope they are afforded greater self-sufficiency, education rights, as well as the legal recognition they deserve. If these things don’t happen now, I fear the Rohingya will be in the same situation in another two years, only with even fewer services available to them. Any decrease in aid should only come in tandem with growing self-sufficiency.”
The Rohingya likewise remain in limbo in Malaysia, where they have been fleeing to over the past 30 years.
There, lack of legal status pushes them and other refugee and asylum seekers into an increasingly precarious situation. Unable to work legally, they often disappear into Malaysia’s urban black market economy, where they are vulnerable to exploitation, debt bondage or work accidents.
Walking down the street or even seeking medical care can result in refugees being sent to detention centres or extorted.
“History has repeated itself with the Rohingya and they remain forgotten. The Government of Bangladesh has been accommodating but it’s not their burden to carry alone. This is a regional issue affecting all of Myanmar’s neighbours, as well as an international one. We have to step up and ensure that they aren’t just getting food and water but a future too”, Jegan said.