On June 6, the United Nations agencies in Burma — namely, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Development Program — signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of the country concerning the repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The members of this Muslim minority group had been forcibly displaced from their homeland in Burma’s Rakhine state entirely between August and December last year, when the Burmese armed forces used the excuse of a minor ethnic insurgency in the area — a rebellion not unlike the others going on in the country’s border regions in recent months — to force almost the entirety of an ethnic group from the land of their birth and across the border to Bangladesh.
The U.N. has been treating this agreement as a welcome step forward. Yet this neglects several fundamental problems. The terms of the agreement have not been made public, no representatives of the Rohingya themselves have been consulted on the matter, and the U.N. agencies do not appear to have obligated the government of Burma to ensure the security of Rohingya returning to the country. Nor is there any sign of movement toward accountability for those who have previously orchestrated and carried out the attacks on the minority community.
If past experience is anything to go by, the majority of those returning will not be going back to their villages and their homes. Instead the Burmese government will send them to internal refugee camps, as has been the case in past instances when the U.N. “facilitated the return” of Rohingya refugees who had fled abuses in Burma.
As things stand now, we know for a fact that many of those villages have already been burned to the ground, and many of the lands have already been redistributed to Rakhine Buddhists. Where would the returnees go, if not to Burma’s already notorious “concentration camps”?
There are already more than 120,000 Rohingya held in such camps from previous refugee crises. These are places where international relief organizations are not allowed to go, and where the interned are just rotting away with no prospects of employment or education, little or no access to health care, and no expectation of ever being released.
If repatriation is forced upon the 700,000 Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, according to the terms of this agreement, the best-case scenario is that they will flee again in a few months or years. This refugee ping-pong has occurred before, and it has done nothing to alleviate the human suffering of those displaced. Quite the opposite: It has served only to amplify their problems.
Conversely, there is every reason to believe that next time around, many more Rohingya will be killed by the Burmese armed forces or by civilian extremists before they can get back over the border to Bangladesh.
The Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state is already understood at the global level to be a de facto genocide. We cannot and must not drive these people back into the hands of those who wish nothing more than to kill them. No Rohingya should be enticed, let alone compelled, to return to Burma before the country’s regime is purged of its genocidal elements and before all those who have previously committed crimes against humanity are held to account in international human rights courts.
If the U.N. is serious about tackling the plight of the Rohingya people in the region, it should start with those 120,000 in internal camps of Burma itself. At the very least, they should be released from their effective prisons and allowed to return to their lands, under the supervision of international observers.
Next, the government must grant adequate legal protections to these people and to the areas they inhabit, and must begin to prosecute those who have instigated and carried out attacks against the group in the past. And then, it must begin the process of normalizing the legal status of the Rohingya and establish the legal processes by which they will be granted citizenship in the country of their birth, as per international law. Only then can there be any question of returning any more Rohingya from other refugee camps in the region.
Whatever else we may want to say about the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar and other places, the Rohingya there are safe. International relief organizations have access to them, can see to their well-being and can help with at least some human services. Returning any of these people to Burma under the current conditions, as envisioned by the memorandum of understanding, would make their lives materially worse.
These people have suffered enough. The obligation on the international community now is to make their lives safer and better — not to throw them back into harm’s way.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Originally appeared in Washington Post.