The Long Haul Ahead for Myanmar’s Rohingya Refugee Crisis
In the last eight months, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled indiscriminate and brutal operations by Myanmar’s military in northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, joining tens of thousands who left earlier in 2017, and many more from previous years. The two countries have agreed upon a procedural framework for voluntary repatriation, but no Rohingya have returned and small numbers continue to flee. The burden of the crisis may have shifted to Bangladesh, but the onus of responsibility remains squarely on Myanmar. The world must pursue accountability for crimes committed and press the government to create the conditions for voluntary repatriation. The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, however much international opprobrium Myanmar faces. Planning for the refugees should proceed on that assumption, while efforts continue to protect those Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.
Failing to develop long-term plans for the refugees would not only risk that hundreds of thousands of people remain in limbo. It could also lead the status quo to morph in dangerous ways. For now, host communities and political elites in Bangladesh largely sympathise with the refugees, but if the sentiments of either were to shift – after the December elections, for example, or due to prolonged negative impacts on host communities – the Rohingya might face pressure to return against their will or move into more isolated camps in Bangladesh, such as those the Bangladeshi government is building on remote Bhasan island. Such developments could prompt instability or violence on either side of the border – due to organised resistance by refugees to relocation or premature repatriation, communal violence against returning refugees, or renewed ARSA mobilisation in Rakhine State.
The social, political and strategic implications of this crisis for Bangladesh are complex at all levels. The host communities – neglected by Dhaka at the best of times – are already feeling the strain. While there is no disagreement in political and policy circles about the intractability of the crisis, there is widespread reluctance to acknowledge it, as it would reflect badly on the Bangladeshi government’s ability to protect its sovereignty and could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of ethnic cleansing. Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. After the December elections, the next government (likely to be the same as the present one) will have to make some difficult longer-term decisions. This subject will be covered in detail in a forthcoming report.
Myanmar has constructed some of the infrastructure that could support a limited return, in the form of heavily guarded processing and holding camps. But it has done little if anything to create conditions on the ground that would give refugees, who fled abuses that likely constitute crimes against humanity, and who continue to be fearful and traumatised, the confidence to go back. It has bulldozed many burned Rohingya villages, is building new roads, power lines and security infrastructure across northern Rakhine State, and has promoted or allowed the expansion of existing villages and construction of new settlements inhabited by other ethnicities. The refugees’ return to their homes and lands thus is not only increasingly unlikely, but also becoming impossible in practice. Ethnic Rakhine political leaders and local communities are staunchly opposed to repatriation, and the government has done little to mitigate their resistance (indeed, its own relations with ethnic Rakhine have soured). Moreover, hostility toward the Rohingya across Myanmar political elites and in society more broadly remains firmly entrenched.
Most refugees express no intention to go to third countries, and in any case their opportunities to do so are likely to remain scarce. They want to return home. Many refugees hope that the unprecedented international attention their plight has received over the past months could help them achieve that, but they are resigned to staying for an extended period in Bangladesh.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group has significant networks of members and supporters in the Bangladesh camps, and appears determined to remain relevant as an insurgent and political force. The extent to which it can do so is uncertain. It launched a small cross-border attack on a Myanmar army convoy on 5 January, but it has conducted no actions since then. Whether it can leverage widespread disaffection and the significant sympathy it still enjoys in the camps into political authority and sustain cross-border attacks remains to be seen. There is no evidence it has established links to transnational groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, viewing the situation in the camps through a counter-terrorism lens would be unhelpful, as the Bangladeshi authorities appear to recognise.
Improving the situation in northern Rakhine State, where the 100,000-150,000 Rohingya still in Myanmar live, is not primarily a development challenge. It depends on the Myanmar government and security forces changing course. For the Rohingya in northern Rakhine, particularly those in rural areas, life is becoming increasingly untenable. Curfews, checkpoints and movement restrictions mean that they cannot gain access to farms, fishing grounds, markets, day labour opportunities or social services. These people say they do not want to leave, but if the restrictions are not urgently eased, many may decide they have no other choice.
To prevent further deterioration, the international community should continue pushing the government to allow unfettered United Nations and aid agency access to northern Rakhine. They should press for accountability for crimes committed by the security forces and others. It is also vital to ensure that the government changes conditions in northern Rakhine, to improve the prospects of an eventual refugee return, and more urgently to stabilise the situation of the Rohingya who remain, so as to prevent a further exodus. The recent appointment of a UN special envoy for Myanmar, combined with continued scrutiny and engagement from the Security Council – which just completed a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar – can hopefully result in some progress on these issues. The recent statement from State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office promising improved relations with the UN, together with the appointment of a new president, may open space for changes in the government’s approach.
Realistically, however, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh appear unlikely to return any time soon. Donors should prepare for the long haul. They should not only fund the humanitarian operation but also invest in the development of Cox’s Bazar district, where the refugees currently reside, to reduce the burden on host communities, minimise risks that local sentiment turns against refugees and create an environment more amenable to their integration. The Bangladeshi government currently resists such an approach, given the domestic political costs of acknowledging that the Rohingya will remain indefinitely. Similarly, many Western governments are understandably loath to acknowledge explicitly that prospects of the refugees’ return are slim. But sustained political discussions on long-term solutions between the government, donors and multilateral institutions are vital. Failing to develop plans for the Rohingya’s prolonged stay in Bangladesh risks worsening their suffering and propelling the crisis in a still more dangerous direction.
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