Rohingya in a street market in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / Diego Cupolo / NurPhoto

Last week in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of Rohingya in the squalor of Cox’s Bazar rose in protest under the banner of “Go Home.” They chanted slogans, distributed leaflets and raised placards in different languages, each centering on this core message. 

The activists brought attention to 19 points of demand, including principally the large-scale repatriation of the Rohingya stateless population back to their homeland in Myanmar.

Among the other important demands were more active involvement of the international community in a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the region and the full restoration of the rights of citizenship to the Rohingya that were stripped by the military junta in Myanmar in 1982.

The hard reality is that it is unlikely that the Rohingya will be allowed to be securely repatriated any time soon. Since the mass exodus from Rakhine state of more than 700,000 Rohingya across the border in 2017, there have been a couple of attempts by the Bangladeshi government to negotiate with Myanmar to start such a process, but with few results.

Even the trickle of refugees who were being allowed back has halted since the coup by the military in Myanmar last year, and conditions on the ground are still prone to conflict and not conducive for safe return.

What is important to note this time is the background that has prompted the current protests.

First, there is increasing international pressure on the military junta since the cessation of democratic rule. Second, the administration of US President Joe Biden in March took the important and overdue step of officially recognizing the genocide of the Rohingya. Last are the changing dynamics of the Bangladeshi government regarding its management of the Rohingya refugee crisis. 

The Bangladeshi government was universally praised in the early days after the large influx of Rohingya refugees for taking on this humanitarian crisis. But there are signs that the government and sections of the public are showing signs of weariness as the crisis has dragged on and with an increasing concern over the capacity of the state to handle the needs of such a population.

A degree of public sentiment toward the large refugee settlements has turned slowly against the Rohingya, who are seen as taking away resources and jobs from the locals. 

The fact that the protests could take place at all is also notable, given that since the last protest by more than 100,000 Rohingya in 2019, such displays were ostensibly banned by the Bangladeshi administrators of the area.

Yet in this case, it seems the current round of protests were conducted with the tacit support and encouragement of the local authorities, who perhaps see it in their interests to ensure that the momentum for repatriation is sustained, particularly in light of an upcoming election next year in Bangladesh. 

The burdens of and pressures on host countries sheltering such large refugee populations must be considered. Still, moving forward, it is critical to ensure that the standards expected for repatriation are not beholden solely to political considerations that could result in the Rohingya being involuntarily forced back in conditions that are dangerous and without any meaningful guarantee of rights provided by the Myanmar government.  

Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.