Timeline and ‘sustainable return’

The Rohingya repatriation programme, agreed upon by Bangladesh and Myanmar, is off to a rocky start. There are still many roadblocks that must be removed before the Rohingyas voluntarily return to Myanmar. On February 9, 2018, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a story on the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar with a photograph of Khoutiza Begum from Ukhia camp on the first page under the caption, “They will burn us to ashes if we go back”. It is not hard for the readers to guess who she was afraid of. Bangladeshis have been very welcoming so far, but their patience is also running out. The Prime Minister (PM) in a meeting with the newly appointed Swedish Ambassador to Bangladesh expressed her grave concern regarding the presence of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees on Bangladeshi soil. It has been almost six months since this humanitarian crisis started, and with each passing month that the refugees are staying with us, Bangladesh is coping with a monumental challenge. “Rohingya presence is creating massive socio-economic pressure”, the PM informed the Swedish Ambassador.

Local residents in Cox’s Bazar are increasingly expressing their concerns at the turn of events, and some locals are pushing “for the eviction of the multitudes sheltering in their impoverished border area.” In a sympathetic tone, WSJ wrote, “some Bangladeshis want the 700,000 people who fled Myanmar and are stranded in refugee camps in their country to leave. For now, the refugees have nowhere else to go.” The existential dilemma that the Rohingyas now face has been labelled as a “lose-lose” choice: stay longer and you might face protest in Bangladesh, on the other hand if you return you face violence and death.

It is not difficult to see why the Rohingyas are wary. Imagine a completely hypothetical situation, where a million Bangladeshis have crossed over to the neighbouring state of Asylum to escape the attack of wilddyclos, a type of semiaquatic omnivores. These animals emerge from the rivers only after dark and attack men, women, and children indiscriminately, and have killed more than 6,000. However, the exact number of the dead is not accurately known since many corpses were washed away, and were dragged down to their habitat, under the water, and devoured after they died of asphyxiation. Now if the government of Asylum, after six months decided to push the refugees back to their homeland, it will create a panic among the refugees.

Fortunately, the conditions that the Rohingyas face are not as dire as in the dystopian picture I painted above. They face a lot of uncertainty and are fearful of imminent death should they return. My goal is to awaken the international community from their state of somnolence and to act in unison, as it did during the Mediterranean refugee crisis, and to assist us in three areas:

1) To feed and house the refugees while they are here; 2) To ensure that the Myanmar authorities are creating the pre-conditions necessary for the Rohingyas to agree to return voluntarily; and 3) Create a future framework for the reintegration of the Rohingyas in their homeland. Admittedly, points one and two may be easier to resolve in the short-term, while three is a medium- to long-term goal and quite complicated—but all of these must be on the table.

Much has been said and written on the conditions necessary for the Rohingyas to return and resume their normal life in Rakhine. At this point, it appears that all parties, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Rohingya leaders, and international stakeholders have a pretty good outline of the shape of things for a peaceful transition to “status quo ante”. I don’t say this lightly since international organisations such as UNHCR, IOM, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and HRW have provided a good roadmap for the sustainable course to adopt. Let it only be pointed out that current conditions are not right for the plan of action worked out for Bangladesh and Myanmar to proceed. In the words of Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights in Myanmar, the decision of repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees anytime soon was premature.

Incidentally, a World Bank report titled “Sustainable Refugee Return” examined eight case studies of large-scale refugee return, namely return to Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Cambodia, Iraq, Liberia, and South Sudan. Based on the data collected from refugees, the top three factors that potential returnees consider are: security, employment, and housing. Other factors they take into account are the presence of conditions favourable for a reintegration in society including education, wider economic opportunity, social services, reliable public services, and citizenship.

Bangladesh along with Germany, Greece, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon has welcomed refugees who have fled from their home either due to war, political turmoil, or government policy. Jordan, which has taken in more than 2.7 million people, was recently named as the top refugee hosting country, followed by Turkey, with over 2.5 million. However, Bangladesh stands out for one reason, and that is the economic burden of housing and feeding the refugees. In a BBC interview on December 18, 2017 with the OHCHR chief, Bangladesh’s economic burden was identified due to its low per capital income and high population density.

The aim of policymakers should be to achieve a “sustainable return”. There are many definitions of sustainable return—here is a useful one from the IOM. “Sustainable return should be understood either as a) successful reintegration in the country of origin, which includes the economic, social and psychological aspects and the capacity of the individual to cope with push factors, both old and new on the same level as the local population, or b) eventual legal remigration made possible by skills acquired during the reintegration process”. We have now been entrusted by the international community with the responsibility to ensure safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the 700,000 souls.

Abdullah Shibli is an economist and Senior Research Fellow at International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank based in Boston, USA.

Source: The Daily Star.

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