Since August 2017, more than 720,000 Rohingya have fled a vicious campaign of violence by the Myanmar security forces and sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.
This week some refugees could be returned from Bangladesh to Myanmar under an agreement reached earlier between the two governments that sidestepped safeguards mandated under international law.
Here, Amnesty International explains how this situation has come about and why the forcible return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar is unlawful, being premature, and putting their lives, liberty and other key human rights at risk.
Who are the Rohingya people?
The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar. Until recently, more than a million lived mostly in Rakhine State, in the west of the country, on the border with Bangladesh.
The Rohingya assert longstanding ties to Rakhine State, and the overwhelming majority were born in the country as were their parents and grandparents. Virtually all of them have no citizenship and no reasonable claim to citizenship other than in Myanmar. Despite this, the government, insists that there is no such group in the country, instead claiming that they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. It refuses to recognize them as citizens, effectively rendering the majority of them stateless.
Their lack of citizenship has had a cascade of negative impacts on their lives, and has allowed the authorities in Myanmar to severely restrict their freedom of movement, effectively segregating them from the rest of society. As a result, they struggle to access healthcare, schools and jobs. This systematic discrimination amounts to apartheid, a crime against humanity under international law.
How have so many Rohingya ended up in Bangladesh as refugees?
Since August last year, more than 720,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State after the military unleashed a brutal campaign of violence against them. During this campaign, launched in response to coordinated attacks on security posts by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), security forces killed thousands of Rohingya, raped women and girls, hauled men and boys off to detention sites where they were tortured, and burned hundreds of homes and villages to the ground in what were clearly crimes against humanity. A UN report has concluded these crimes may also constitute genocide.
While the crisis in Rakhine State since 25 August is unprecedented in the scale of displacement, it’s not the first time the Rohingya have been subject to violent expulsion from their homes, villages and country at the hands of the Myanmar state. In the late 1970s and early 1990s hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to Bangladesh after major military crackdowns which were accompanied by wide-ranging human rights violations.
More recently, in 2016 almost 90,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces responded to attacks on police posts by an armed Rohingya group with a campaign of violence targeting the community as a whole. At the time, Amnesty International concluded that these actions may have amounted to crimes against humanity.
Today, the UN estimates that there are altogether more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
How were the Rohingya refugees received in Bangladesh?
At first, the new arrivals were welcomed. Across Bangladesh, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the persecuted minority driven from their homes. The Bangladeshi government, which had long been ambivalent towards the Rohingya, embraced them.
On a visit to the Rohingya refugee camps, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared that if Bangladesh could feed their 160 million people, it could feed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
While the Bangladeshi government has generously hosted the refugees, they have not given them refugee status – leaving them without legal status on either side of the border. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
The refugees are squeezed into threadbare shelters, mostly made of flimsy tarpaulin and bamboo. During the severe monsoon season, many homes were at risk of damage. Thousands of families were relocated and the shelters were reinforced. But they are still at risk in the case of a cyclone striking. The camps are also extremely congested. The area where most of the Rohingya refugees have taken shelter is large enough to count as Bangladesh’s fourth largest city, with nearly a million people, including the local host community residing there.
Why shouldn’t Bangladesh return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar?
The Rohingya have an inalienable human right to return to and reside in Myanmar – it is their home, and if they choose to they must be allowed to return. But governments must not organize returns unless they ensure that they are safe, voluntary, and dignified. As things currently stand, none of those conditions have been met, despite claims to the contrary by both the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments. The UN has repeatedly stated that conditions in Myanmar are not conducive to returns. The Bangladeshi government has agreed to have UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, oversee the returns process. UNHCR has undertaken the responsibility to interview every family that has expressed willingness to go back and certify that this is a voluntary return before they can be repatriated to Myanmar. This includes ensuring that refugees are also given the option to remain in Bangladesh if they choose to do so.
The cruel and entrenched system of discrimination and segregation that made the Rohingya so vulnerable in the first place has to be dismantled. Safe and dignified returns also means guaranteeing that once back, they can enjoy equal rights and citizenship and that the extreme human rights violations they have suffered will stop.
Safe and dignified returns also require those responsible for the horrific abuses against the Rohingya to be held to account. As it stands, almost all perpetrators remain at large and continue to evade justice, while maintaining positions of power that enable them to perpetrate more violations. The Rohingya cannot be left living in fear of a fresh wave of violence that will, if they survive, drive them across the border yet again.
Forcibly returning refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, where their lives, safety and other key human rights remain at grave risk, is a violation of the fundamental principle of international law known as non-refoulement.
What should happen now?
The Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar must uphold their commitment that Rohingya refugees will only return safely, voluntarily and with dignity. Both governments must also ensure that refugees in Bangladesh are able to make free and informed choices about return, based on access to full and impartial information about conditions in Rakhine State and the support to remain in Bangladesh if they choose to do so.
Both governments must also ensure that Rohingya are consulted and included in all decisions affecting their futures. At the moment, Rohingya refugees do not have a seat at the table, and decisions about their future are being made without their knowledge and therefore obviously without their consent.
As the UN agency mandated with the protection of refugees, UNHCR must play a key role in any organized return process, including providing refugees with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information in relevant languages and formats to allow them to make genuinely free and informed choices about whether and when they would like to exercise their right to return, obtaining their consent and monitoring that conditions are safe for return in Myanmar – before, during and after any returns take place, ensuring their long-term sustainability.
The international community has an important role to play – in ensuring that returns are not forced, but also in pushing Myanmar to create the conditions which would allow for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns. The international community must also do much more to support Bangladesh and share the responsibility and financial burden of hosting almost a million refugees. Shamefully, only 40% of the UN’s appeal for USD 950 million has been committed. Governments and donors around the world need to step up to support this effort.
Finally, Rohingya refugees are entitled to continue to seek asylum in Bangladesh and the authorities there must keep borders open to refugees who continue to flee now or will in the future. The Bangladeshi government should also explore all options to ensure continued international protection for this community. To be truly voluntary, refugees need alternatives – including to remain in Bangladesh with asylum protections, including refugee status, and to resettle or relocate to a third country if they choose to do so. So far, these options do not exist.