Time stands still for more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims, who are still unable to return home two years after being driven out of northern Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh, fleeing widespread killings, rape, and the burning of their villages at the hands of the Myanmar military. The recently failed attempt to repatriate refugees underscores just how inadequate the conditions are for their return.
A United Nations-backed fact-finding mission has found sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior military officials for grave crimes, including genocide. Yet the Myanmar government continues to defy the UN Human Rights Council by denying these rights violations ever took place and refusing to investigate seriously and prosecute these crimes or cooperate with international efforts.
The refugees joined around 200,000 other Rohingya refugees already living in camps in Bangladesh who fled persecution and violence in Rakhine state as far back as 1993. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants and has in effect denied them citizenship, despite most of them having lived in Myanmar for generations. Today, the Rohingya live in the largest refugee settlement in the world, where almost a million people await the chance to return home one day.
Bangladesh wants the refugees to go back but says it cannot force them, correctly maintaining that Myanmar must still create conditions that can enable safe and voluntary returns. Under pressure from Chinese leaders who brokered an agreement, Bangladesh did attempt to persuade some refugees to return in November 2018, but all refused. Bangladesh and Myanmar then announced that repatriation would start this August 22. Bangladesh, this time, called for consultation with the UN refugee agency, starting with the 3,450 people Myanmar said were eligible to return from an initial round of 22,000 names shared. Once again, Bangladeshi officials, UN staff, activists and journalists waited for those listed to return. No one showed up.
Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they wanted to go home but feared returning under the current conditions. As part of the repatriation process, returnees are required to sign up for a digitized National Verification Card (NVC), which identifies them as a foreigner in Myanmar without promising eventual citizenship.
Without rights of citizenship the Rohingya said they would face further oppression and discrimination. One man explained that “taking NVC means you are acknowledging yourself as a foreigner.”
Donors and concerned governments should insist that the Myanmar government and military ensure the security and basic rights of Rohingya, ensure unhindered access for international humanitarian agencies to provide resources and monitor rights, and guarantee them full citizenship, with all accompanying rights and protections. And instead of offering facilities that resemble detention camps, surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fences and security outposts – much like the camps in central Rakhine state where some 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims have remained in de facto military detention since 2012 – they should insist that the refugees are allowed to return to their homes, or to a safe place nearby.
Of course, that may not be possible. A study by the Australian Strategy Policy Institute last month found evidence of ongoing destruction of vacant Rohingya villages and expansion of fortified military bases on razed settlements.
In addition, there are security concerns for refugees returning to Rakhine because the northern and central parts of the state are now riddled by armed conflict. Since January, the insurgent Arakan Army has been fighting the Myanmar military. The Myanmar government ordered an Internet blackout that began on June 21 across eight townships, making it extraordinarily difficult to verify disturbing reports of civilian casualties, arbitrary detention and deaths in military custody.
The conditions for return are poor. But on August 25, the second anniversary of the expulsions, tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees gathered to say that they wanted to go home. “We want to tell the world that we want our rights back, we want citizenship, we want our homes and land back,” one of the organizers said.
Myanmar needs to address these demands and the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave human-rights violations.