Editor’s Note: Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar’s plans to start repatriating Rohingya refugees from the Cox’s Bazar area ran into difficulty when not a single Rohingya volunteered to return.
That’s no surprise considering it was only a couple of weeks ago that Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, described the situation inside Myanmar as “an ongoing genocide” against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-majority country.
The small proportion (less than 30%) of the Rohingya people left in Myanmar – those who have not already fled over the border to Bangladesh since August 2017 – continue to be subject to arbitrary violence by state authorities and non-state militant groups alike. And nothing regarding the legal and social environments which enabled the military’s original “clearance operations” in the northwestern state of Rakhine have changed.
The Burmese government denies claims that it has committed crimes against the Rohingya people. Authorities in Myanmar say they the clearance operations are targeting violent militants in the region.
Nevertheless, the ongoing humanitarian disaster is bad press for the Myanmar government. The government of Bangladesh is reeling from internal pressure over the refugee influx and is struggling to cope with the logistical, social and financial aspects of the crisis.
The ideal outcome of the Rohingya situation is for them to be able to return to their homes in Myanmar. The problem is that for the most part those homes no longer exist. They have been either burned to the ground or redistributed to Buddhist citizens. The repatriation plan is not for the Rohingya refugees to be returned to their homes: It is for them to be moved from refugee camps in Bangladesh to refugee camps in Myanmar.
That would be catastrophic.
International relief organizations and humanitarian observers have largely unfettered access to the camps in Bangladesh and can offer support both to the refugees. Most of these organizations, however, have been banned from Myanmar.
So the plan is to move the refugees from precarious but largely safe conditions, to precarious conditions where they would be at the mercy of their previous attackers, and out of sight from the international community or anyone who might want, or be able to protect them.
In the long run, it may in principle be possible to allow for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. But before that can be even contemplated, Myanmar must change.
The country must overhaul its 1982 Citizenship Law which rendered the Rohingya stateless. They must receive the same status and the same legal rights and protections as everyone else in the country.
In addition, the individuals inside Burmese institutions and civil society organizations who orchestrated this genocide must be fired and held accountable before international tribunals.
But the highest priority must be given to ensuring the safety of the remaining Rohingya people. And realistically, for the foreseeable future their safety can only be ensured by the international community – who only have access to Bangladesh, not Rakhine State.
To that end, the international community must work together with Bangladesh to invest in the refugee communities and in Bangladesh itself so the Rohingya and Bangladesh can together build a sustainable, thriving community.
And so far as it is possible, the international community must seek to recover the costs of this endeavor from those who have instigated the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya from Myanmar: the Burmese government and the military leaders who, incidentally, also control most of Myanmar’s wealth.