Minors make up at least 60 per cent of the Rohingya refugees who have crossed the border to Bangladesh over the past few weeks. Highly traumatized, they are arriving malnourished and injured after walking for days. Photo: UNICEF/Brown

Will Rohingya Refugees Actually Return to Myanmar Without the Promise of Full Rights as Citizens?

Myanmar and Bangladesh are moving forward with a controversial plan to repatriate more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims, who fled a military crackdown that began late August.

The deal was signed Nov. 23 and aims to begin the process to return the first 100,000 refugees to Myanmar by Jan. 23. On Monday, officials from the two countries met to hammer out details of implementing the deal and finalized the “physical arrangement” Tuesday. Myanmar’s state media has also announced it’s building a temporary camp to house 30,000 of the soon-to-be returnees.

Bangladesh is eager to be relieved from the responsibility of caring for the massive influx. But many are worried that for the Rohingya, who have been called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” a return to Myanmar under vague terms will mean more of the same troubles – statelessness, physical danger, unstable livelihoods and confinement to squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and closely guarded villages.

The concern isn’t unwarranted, because it’s happened before.

In fact, this new deal is based on a 1992 – 1993 repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh after a previous outbreak of military violence.

“Bangladesh authorities had assured us that Myanmar would give us back our rights, that we would be able to live peacefully,” 71-year-old Hamid Hussain told Reuters. “We went back, but nothing changed.”

Hussain was among the more than 250,000 Rohingya who escaped Myanmar in 1992, and returned under the repatriation pact. Now, he’s once again a refugee in a makeshift camp in southeast Bangladesh.

“I will go back again only if our rights and safety are guaranteed – forever,” he said.

Officials say it’s going to be different this time. Returnees can apply for citizenship “after they pass the verification process, ” according to Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Myanmar government. They’ll just have to prove their forebears were residents.

But doing so will be tricky, as the Buddhist majority government has always considered Rohingya illegal migrants from Bangladesh (and called them “Bengalis”), not an ethnic minority. Consequently, they have been denied citizenship, and many of them lack government-issued identification. Ultimately, the deal, like the one in 1992, doesn’t guarantee citizenship.

For many Rohingya refugees, that’s a dealbreaker. Repatriation must be voluntary under international law, and some have already said that if citizenship cannot be guaranteed, they will refuse to return to a country where they just fled atrocities that the U.N., U.S. and others have described as “ethnic cleansing.”

“Burma has yet to end its military abuses against the Rohingya, let alone create conditions that would allow them to return home safely,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a December press release. “This agreement looks more like a public relations effort by Burma to quickly close this ugly chapter than a serious effort to restore the rights of Rohingya and allow them to voluntarily return in safety and dignity.”

On Tuesday, Bangladesh’s ministry of foreign affairs announced that the two countries will aim to complete the repatriation process in two years, instead of 10 like the 1992 deal. Bangladesh will also establish five “transit camps.” From there, returnees will be sent to two “reception centers” in Myanmar while new homes are built.

But human rights advocates say that camps like these are what lead to “de facto detention and segregation” after previous spates of “anti-Rohingya violence.” Instead, they’re pressuring both governments to include UNHCR in the discussions and process.

“To ensure that the refugees are heard and their protection guaranteed in Bangladesh and on return in Myanmar, we are willing to be part of these discussions,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said at a media briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, according to bdnews24.com.

Refugees interviewed by UNHCR also recognize that the agency’s involvement is their best hope for a safe return. So far, Myanmar seems reticent. But the UN refugee agency supervised the last repatriation deal, so perhaps enough international pressure will bring one more important party to the table. Still, without the promise of full rights and citizenship, it is unlikely that refugees who fled ethnic cleansing will feel secure enough to return home.