Among refugee advocates there has been a growing concern that recent agreements among regional governments and the United Nations on a framework for mitigating the Rohingya crisis could prompt at least some of the million-plus people who have fled the deadly military pogrom in Myanmar to consider risking a return to try to rebuild their lives.
But impressions gathered in early July by UN officials and leaders of humanitarian organizations during meetings with Rohingya in refugee camps in Bangladesh, where most of the people have escaped to, reveal that officials think any hopes of returning are premature and dangerous.
Several hundred-thousand more Rohingya refugees are also scattered across Southeast Asia: in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Like those who fled to Bangladesh, most Rohingya tell visitors that they are too afraid to go back, though they are not welcome where they have landed.
Anwarul Chowdhury, a former Bangladesh ambassador to the UN and later a UN under secretary-general for least-developed nations, landlocked countries and small island states, said in an interview with PassBlue that he was ready to label as “genocide” the Burmese Buddhist military’s campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya.
UN officials have described the purge of Rohingya as a classic case of ethnic cleansing, which is a violation of international law. Bangladesh has been in touch with the International Criminal Court in The Hague to identify potential Burmese subjects for investigation. Asked about that recently by a reporter for The Irrawaddy, a leading national news service, the Burmese government spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said, “The ICC has nothing to do with Myanmar.”
Chowdhury said that too much trust internationally had been placed on the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, who as the self-styled State Counselor (a military constitution prevents her from being president) has not acted decisively. Any plan to help Rohingya refugees return to Myanmar would be condemning them to more uncontrolled “carnage,” Chowdhury said.
On July 1, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, accompanied by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, and Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, heard firsthand about the decimation of Rohingya life in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
On July 10, Guterres wrote in The Washington Post: “Small children butchered in front of their parents. Girls and women gang-raped while family members were tortured and killed. Villages burned to the ground. Nothing could have prepared me for the bone-chilling accounts I heard last week in Bangladesh. . . . “
Chowdhury, who has long supported women in the UN system, said that the protection of women’s rights and health should be a top priority for the UN both in the refugee camps and certainly if officials decided to encourage anyone to go back to Myanmar, also still known as Burma.
Guterres has been stepping up his urgent appeals for more international aid for the refugees and financial assistance to Bangladesh, a poor, densely populated country that has absorbed the burden of caring for a huge influx of desperate, battered and traumatized survivors since last August.
A UN call for about $1 billion in donations to a humanitarian fund for the refugees is only 26 percent met. Malnutrition in the camps is a result, Guterres wrote. The World Bank has offered $500 million in grant aid (not burdensome loans) to the Bangladesh government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, but the needs will be far greater as monsoon winds and rains begin.
Chowdhury said that the Bangladesh government must be more vocal and visible its own appeals to international donors to augment what funds international organizations of all kinds can raise. The country has a very low profile even at the best of times.
The International Organization for Migration, which is the lead agency in responding to the crisis in Bangladesh with with the UN Development Program, has published a comprehensive update of the work being done in numerous fields such as water supply, health care and improved shelter.
Chowdhury said that it was a disgrace that Bangladesh is getting almost no help from other governments or regional multigovernment associations in South Asia or Southeast Asia. Myanmar is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Bangladesh is part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In the latter group, only Pakistan has spoken out but just to offer moral support, Chowdhury said.
India, under a Hindu nationalist government, is turning away Rohingya on its border with Myanmar, at times with military force, and has plans to deport some people who settled in the country after earlier refugee arrivals. From about 2010 to 2014, under a secular Congress Party-led government, India resettled about 14,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers, Indian media have reported.
At the headquarters of the UN refugee agency in Geneva, a spokesman, Charlie Yaxley, said in a telephone interview with PassBlue that his organization was fully aware of the dangers of early return to Myanmar, saying that a recent memorandum of understanding signed by Myanmar, the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Development Program was only a first step in what could be a long process.
“The purpose of this MoU is to work towards creating conditions that would eventually allow for the voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh,” Yaxley said. “I think it is very important to stress is that this is simply the first step.”
The UN Refugee Agency does not have a presence in Rakhine state, so is not in a position yet to assess the situation on the ground or help returnees until conditions are conducive.
“We do not consider those conditions to currently be in place, and any returns that do take place will have to be done on an entirely voluntary basis with the full informed consent of the individuals involved, and only after the required engagement has been carried out with the Rohingya community themselves,” Yaxley said. “I think that’s really key to the immediate steps in the direction towards a voluntary repatriation program — but a welcome first step nonetheless.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.