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China has to go beyond tokenism to ensure return of Rohingya to Myanmar

The Rohingya from Myanmar crowd into refugee camps in Bangladesh (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@airnewsalerts)

DHAKA: The lights are dim at the end of the tunnel in case of repatriation of Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

The country hosts nearly 1.2 million Muslim Rohingya people who have fled ethno religious strife in neighbouring Myanmar during a military genocidal campaign, which killed at least 9,000 people in 2017.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) backed campaign that the United Nations labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya driven across the border into Bangladesh in September 2017.

More than a million refugees are crammed in tens of thousands of make-shift huts made of bamboo, thin plastic sheets and corrugated tin roofs and the living conditions in the nauseating camps are dangerous. Often, fires blaze through the camps leaving thousands without shelter.

Last week, a 17-member delegation from Myanmar’s immigration and population ministries crossed into Bangladesh in mid-March and interviewed 480 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar as part of a plan for possible repatriation to their country.

The Myanmar delegation, led by Aung Myo, the social welfare minister for Rakhine State, was selecting members for a pilot ‘family-based repatriation’ project.

The Myanmar delegation’s visit to the camps is believed to be brokered by China and facilitated by the UNHCR.

The Refugee Relief And Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in Cox’s Bazar, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, said the Myanmar junta officials cleared 711 Rohingyas out of 1,140 recommended by Bangladesh. The newborn and newly married couples have been excluded from verification.

When journalists asked when the repatriation is expected to start, Rahman said that the “Myanmar delegation did not have the power to commit to a possible repatriation date.”

Before the visit of the delegation, the Myanmar junta for the first time since the 2017 crackdown, allowed diplomats from Bangladesh, India, China, and five other countries to tour the restive Rakhine State.

It was only then, the officials expressed the military junta’s plan to begin Rohingya repatriation under the pilot project.

Earlier, Bangladesh formally sought cooperation from China to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar during a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and also China’s State Councillor promised to resolve a political solution to the Rohingya crisis.

China had used its influence in Myanmar to broker a November 2017 agreement to repatriate Rohingyas.

China’s ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen hoped that the first batch of displaced Rohingya would be repatriated to Myanmar soon while China continued its role as mediator, the official news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha reported.

On 17 March 2023, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen also urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states to take collective responsibility to ensure a safe and dignified return of the most persecuted Rohingyas to their homeland, Myanmar.

Indeed, OIC backed Gambia to file a genocide case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Only Turkey has a visible presence at the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar.

India also launched “Operation Insaniyat” to provide relief assistance in response to the humanitarian crisis faced by a large influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh from Myanmar.

Bangladesh and Myanmar began the negotiation for repatriation, but since 2018 none has returned so far and recent verification of a few hundred potential returnees for a pilot repatriation project remains unclear when they would be going home.

Despite attempts to send them back, the refugees refused, fearing insecurity in Myanmar, which was exacerbated by the military takeover last year.

Amid the situation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a statement on March 19 said they are observing developments of the Myanmar delegation’s visit to Bangladesh to verify a selected number of refugees on a bilateral pilot project on their possible returns.

The UN Refugee organisation reiterated that conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are currently “not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees”.

Bangladesh has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to “voluntary and sustainable repatriation” since the onset of the current crisis which echoes UNCHR policy that every refugee has a right to return to their home country based, make an informed choice and no refugee should be forced to repatriate.

China always wanted to impress upon their “feel good” diplomacy, but despite best intentions, it seems the repatriation has entered into a fresh deadlock as both Bangladesh and UNCHR, responsible for the safe return of the displaced Rohingyas are concerned about their safety and security in the Rakhine State.

The Rohingya issue must be addressed by China, a country [Myanmar] over which it has significant influence. Only China can make conclusive negotiations on the safe return of the Rohingyas, writes security analyst Samina Akhter in Modern Diplomacy.

Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner.

Last week, Bangladesh has inaugurated a naval base in Cox’s Bazar with two conventional diesel-electric powered refurbished Chinese submarines bought for $205 million in 2016 to enhance Bangladesh’s naval capacity, after the demarcation of its maritime boundary with India and Myanmar.

It is equally true, that Myanmar’s military junta, which took power in a coup two years ago, has demonstrated no intention to take back any refugees.

Most importantly, the Rohingya refugee groups based in Bangladesh said for sustainable and dignified repatriation will only be possible when the Myanmar regime recognises the Rohingya as an ethnic community; provide legal citizenship which was stripped in 1982; school education; healthcare services; freedom of movement and livelihood.

Rohingya’s human rights groups believe the face-saving exercise to repatriate refugees happened after the Chinese exerted pressure on the Myanmar military junta to demonstrate a “feel good policy” otherwise face the compliance declared by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The genocide case is resuming at ICJ on 24 April.

“Taking back a few refugees, even if it is less than one percent of the population, shall allow Myanmar to come up with a counterargument under the very false pretence they are sincere about the return of refugees,” the Arakan Rohingya National Alliance (ARNA) said in a statement.

Also Read: Bangladesh accuses Rohingya refugees of criminal behaviour—seeks India’s help for repatriation to Myanmar

(Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh)