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For Rohingya refugees, rising dangers and a long road to repatriation

‘I’m worried, and I’m scared, and my heart keeps throbbing.’

rohingya boats bangladesh Navesh Chitrakar/REUTERS
Rohingya refugees sit on a makeshift boat as they're interrogated by Bangladeshi border guards after crossing the Myanmar border, at Shah Porir Dwip near Cox's Bazar, November 2017.

As Southeast Asian leaders gather in the Cambodian capital this week for a regional summit, the escalating violence in Myanmar is atop the agenda, but Rohingya refugees and activists are urging that the plight of those driven out of the country is not forgotten.

More than five years after escaping the brutality of the Myanmar military, those confined in Bangladesh camps are still pleading for safety – this time from Rohingya insurgents and police harassment – and the prospect of repatriation seems as far away as ever.

“I’m worried, and I’m scared, and my heart keeps throbbing,” Mohammed Aziz Arakani, a 27-year-old Rohingya refugee, journalist, and human rights defender, told The New Humanitarian, referring to the insurgents, but also to police accused of rights abuses.

Arakani is currently hiding in an undisclosed location in Bangladesh for fear he’ll be killed by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group operating inside Cox’s Bazar refugee camps and accused of a string of recent attacks.

Read more: Why aid groups, and Rohingya themselves, should stop using the term ‘stateless’

Arakani described numerous incidents of harassment, beatings, torture, arrests, and death threats during the past year against both him and his brother, 25-year-old Saiful. This, Arakani explained, is because the brothers continue to speak out about human rights violations within the camps, including human and drug trafficking, murders, and deliberate fires – not to mention the lack of access to basic services, such as healthcare and education, and the impossibility of earning a livelihood. 

With a target on his head, Arakani said he feels he’s “lost everything in my life”, adding that he didn’t know exactly where his children were and hadn’t been able to see them for a long time. “We are not safe here in Bangladesh,” he said. “The [ARSA] terrorists tell us they will kill us.”

Their experience highlights how dire the conditions can be for the almost one million Rohingya who sought safety in Bangladesh. Most arrived in 2017, escaping a ruthless assault by Myanmar’s military – which is now under a genocide investigation by the UN’s International Court of Justice for its crackdown on the ethnic minority group.  

But in the camps – which have become notorious for gangs, crime, and intimidation – safety is far from guaranteed. A recent report by the Burma Human Rights Network found all 29 interviewees from 10 different camps had experienced violence, while 90% were concerned about kidnappings. “Every day, killings happen in the camps,” said Zaw Win, who works for the NGO Fortify Rights in Cox's Bazar.

Last month alone, two Rohingya community leaders were hacked to death by a mob, a teenager was shot and had his throat slit, while an 11-year-old girl was killed during openfire in a market.

A junta seeking ‘legitimacy’

It’s against this backdrop that conversations between the Bangladesh government and Myanmar junta around repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar continue.

Talks resumed in February 2022 after a hiatus following the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar and subsequent violent clashes. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed a commitment to push for voluntary repatriation, once conditions are conducive, while countries such as Iran and China have offered support in making it a reality.

Ahead of the 11-13 November ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, and as Rohingya continue to flee military violence, campaigners have urged regional governments to protect the oppressed minority and reject a proposal to allow the junta’s participation in the majority of ASEAN meetings.

“You might ask ‘why would the military be interested in negotiating to take them back when it was the one that forced them to leave for the military regime?’” said Thomas Kean, a senior consultant on Myanmar for International Crisis Group. “This issue is one that the international community is watching closely and is invested in. [The junta] see it as a way to earn legitimacy.” 

But so far these repatriation conversations “have led to absolutely nothing”, said Laetitia van den Assum, former member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. She believes the junta is simply “posturing” to show the ICJ that no further genocidal acts are taking place: “So they’re very keen to keep saying that they’ve been trying to discuss repatriation.”

“I was just in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, and nearly every refugee with whom I spoke stated repatriation as their number one wish, but only once it is safe.”

If such discussions did deliver an agreement, Kean believes the refugees wouldn’t agree anyway unless it came with some guarantees of citizenship, security, and livelihoods. As it stands, the Rohingya are not recognised as Myanmar citizens under its 1982 citizenship law, which recognises 135 other national ethnic races. Without citizenship, they struggle with freedom of movement and access to health care, education, and work. 

“I was just in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, and nearly every refugee with whom I spoke stated repatriation as their number one wish, but only once it is safe,” said Daniel Sullivan, director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East at Refugees International.

Thousands of civilians across the country have been killed since the military took power in the February 2021 coup, and 1.3 million have been displaced by the violence. Ongoing fighting in Rakhine state between ARSA and the military has left approximately 600,000 Rohingya civilians caught between the two groups. 

“The situation in Rakhine State is such that you cannot possibly return a million refugees for the foreseeable future, because – even if there was no emergency situation – providing the infrastructure needed to give hundreds of thousands returning refugees a chance at reestablishing themselves and having their livelihoods in place etc is a vast exercise,” van den Assum added.

Back in Cox’s Bazar, those pushing for repatriation initiatives find themselves reportedly targeted by ARSA. It’s speculated that the group is backed by anti-repatriation forces or may want to assert itself as a key leader in formal discussions, hence the repression of other voices. Mohammed Mohib Ullah, chair of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, was working on the issue when he was assassinated in September 2021. Since then, many have been too scared to discuss it, said Zaw Win. 

But with individuals and entire families like the Arakani brothers living in perpetual fear and hundreds of thousands more Rohingya missing out on adequate education, healthcare and security, what alternative solutions are there?

Third-country repatriation

In September, 14 of Ullah’s family members were repatriated to Canada with the support of UNHCR. Resettlement to a third country is something Bangladesh’s foreign minister and home minister have been considering for more refugees, Zaw Win said. It would be a strong signal of responsibility sharing with Bangladesh, Sullivan said. 

“But let’s be honest, India doesn’t even want to take any of the Rohinga refugees, so how can you expect other countries to take them?” asked Tarikul Islam, the co-founder and president of Rise for Rohingya, a student-led, New York-based nonprofit.

There have been indications that more countries, particularly the United States, are considering it. “Whether that’s just going to be a few hundred people or more, I don't know,” said van den Assum, adding that there’s serious reluctance on the Bangladeshi side when it comes to pursuing this option due to fears it would only attract more refugees from Myanmar. 

 “India doesn’t even want to take any of the Rohinga refugees, so how can you expect other countries to take them?”

If third country repatriation does go ahead, it would likely only be for a handful of people whose lives are most at risk, Zaw Win said.

Within Bangladesh, some 28,000 people have been relocated from Cox’s Bazar to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. This has been controversial, given the island’s vulnerability to flooding and cyclones and the suggestion that community members were coerced to leave the camps As a result, there’s a reluctance among donors to fund aid on the island, potentially leaving refugees with even less than they had before.

Local integration?

If a move to Bhasan Char or elsewhere isn’t an option for the majority of those currently confined to Cox’s Bazar camps and villages, the World Bank and others have proposed that Rohingya be integrated into Bangladesh society. As it stands, the refugees largely remain confined to camp and village boundaries and have little interaction with local communities. Integration would allow them to work and contribute to society while also increasing mobility. 

According to the Center for Global Development, “the reason for Bangladesh’s overwhelming focus on repatriating the Rohingya hasn’t been publicly stated.” However, according to Kean, it’s clear the Bangladeshi authorities are against any solution that promotes integration. “I wouldn't rule anything out,” he said. “But I think out of all the options for the Bangladesh authorities, integration is the least attractive and the one they'll oppose sort of the strongest.”

The government prohibits Rohingya children from learning the Bangla language, because they see that as a pathway towards integration.

And integration is not appealing to most Rohingya either, said Aung Kyaw Moe, a human rights advisor for Myanmar’s ousted National Unity Government’s Ministry of Human Rights. “The best thing for the Rohingya would be having access to a Burmese curriculum that's modified… Teaching the Bangla curriculum wouldn't help them at all because when they go back two years later it would be a problem.” 

Improve conditions where they are now 

Given all of the above, the refugee camps are no longer a short-term solution: They are likely to continue housing Rohingya indefinitely. This is why the international community and the UN must work closely with the Bangladeshi government to improve camp conditions, Zaw Win said. "As long as they have to stay here, they have to survive,” he added.  

For van den Assum, the international community should reconsider how it can help to establish a more proactive dialogue with the Bangladeshi government about camp conditions. “It can't leave Bangladesh to handle this on its own,” she said. 

But amid conflict and displacement in other parts of the world, including Ukraine, Ethiopia, and west Africa, “It's going to be difficult to find funding,” she noted, especially “because we're seeing more funding go not to man-made conflicts and refugee needs, but also to climate-related disasters.”

"As long as they have to stay here, they have to survive.”

In the UN-led 2022 response plan for the Rohingya refugee crisis, agencies sought $881 million to provide aid to 1.4 million people. But advocates say that figure falls far short of what is really needed to provide education, healthcare, and security. 

Until the immediate situation is improved, and viable long-term solutions are pursued, the future remains bleak for the Rohingya people, Kyaw Moe said

For Arakani, meanwhile, each day finds him hoping for a miracle that will see him and his brother allowed to lead more normal and safe lives. “We request people to raise their voice to support our cause,” he said. 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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