An international NGO warned on Thursday that Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim refugees may not be willing to return voluntarily to the country and instead remain in sprawling camps in Bangladesh, creating a “grave security threat” with outbreaks of additional violence and recruitment by jihadists.
A 25-page report by International Crisis Group, a transnational nonprofit NGO that conducts research on violent conflict, examines the events that led to deadly attacks on police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25 in northern Rakhine state, prompting a brutal military crackdown that targeted the Rohingya.
It also assesses the impact that the crisis, which has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya to seek safety across the border in Bangladesh, will have on Myanmar and offers possible international policy responses.
Though Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement on Nov. 23 for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown, the chance that many of them will return to northern Rakhine appears unlikely in the near future, the report said.
“Prospects are extremely dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees to their home areas in Myanmar in the short or medium term,” it said, adding that the repatriation agreement should be viewed as “a statement of intent rather than a sign that return is imminent.”
Myanmar has agreed to take back Rohingya who wish to return if they can prove prior residency in the country and show that they left after Oct. 9, 2016, the date on which a smaller scale attack by ARSA triggered another crackdown by security forces.
“But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most are very unlikely to want to do so,” the report said, citing the untenable situation on the ground in northern Rakhine and the continuing flow of Rohingya out of the region.
ICG cited other obstancles, including Myanmar’s lack of clarity as to whether the Rohingya will be allowed to return to their places of origin and reclaim their farmland, the provision of the issuance of National Verification Cards which many Rohingya reject because they relegate them to a second-class status, and the fear that some may be arrested upon return if the government suspects them of being ARSA militants or supporters.
In addition, processing the paperwork for returning Rohingya and issuing them identification documents would overwhelm official capacity and resources, because only 300 returnees can be processed daily, the report said.
“Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end,” it said.
“This raises the prospect of a long-term concentration of hundreds of thousands of traumatized Rohingya confined to squalid camps in Bangladesh, with no obvious way out or hope for the future. That would not only be a human tragedy, but also a grave security threat,” it said.
“Such a context would be ripe for mobilizing further violent responses and potential transnational jihadist recruitment,” the report said.
With most of ARSA’s members in refugee camps in Bangladesh, the militant group may start carrying out cross-border attacks that could lead to clashes between the Bangladeshi and Myanmar armed forces, ICG said.
Furthermore, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other jihadist groups, which have expressed their solidarity with the Rohingya, have called for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders, representing a major security threat to the country, it said.
ICG recommended that the international community and policymakers remain engaged with Myanmar, continue development assistance, humanitarian support, and non-military engagement, minimize the impact of targeted sanctions on individuals who have committed wrongdoing so they do not affect the country’s economy, and engage with the military before imposing sanctions.
Repatriation in January
The report was issued on the same day that Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, told diplomats in the country’s capital Naypyidaw that the country would begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in January.
Despite Myanmar’s agreement with Bangladesh for the voluntary return of Rohingya, there has been no sign of a real effort to move them back.
“We are going to form a joint working committee within three weeks,” he said. “We will start the process of accepting them back two months after the date on which we signed the memorandum of understanding.”
“As soon as they [the Rohingya] return to Rakhine, they have to have an identification card, such as a national Verification Card, that can identify who they are,” he said. “If they have this, then they will be in the national verification process, and they can go on to apply for citizenship.”
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens because it does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.
Win Myat Aye also heads a government committee created in September to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, whose report calls for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
The minister, who was discussing repatriation efforts by the Union Enterprises for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development (UEHRD), also said the government will not let refugees stay in temporary camps for long and will rebuild within two months the homes of those whose houses burned.
About 600 Hindus who fled attacks by Muslim militants on their villages also want to return to northern Rakhine.
President Htin Kyaw created the UEHRD in October to oversee the provision of humanitarian aid in Rakhine state, coordinate resettlement and rehabilitation efforts, carry out regional development, promote lasting peace, and arrange audits of funds from the state and local and foreign donors.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, chairs the UEHRD.
Rakhine lawmaker weighs in
Maung Maung Ohn, former chief minister of Rakhine state and an opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker representing Ann township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that the international community’s frustration with the crisis is understandable.
“We have to accept the international community’s frustration with the government’s approach to resolving the Rakhine problem, but it doesn’t mean the Myanmar government isn’t working on it,” he said.
Maung Maung Ohn said that a solution to the crisis should take into account not only human rights, but also national sovereignty.
“We have to find a profound and acceptable way to resolve the problem,” he said. “This way shouldn’t harm our sovereignty and should be one that the international community can accept. I hope we can make progress if the government forms a group and works together with international organizations.”
“We should consider human rights as well as the sovereignty of the nation when we are resolving this problem,” he said. “We have more pressure on us than before because the international community is talking about and looking only at human rights.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.