Return of the Rohingya

Return of the Rohingya

Rights Advocates Say Transparency, Safety Keys to Successful Repatriation

The United Nations calls them the “most persecuted people in the world.” The Rohingya Muslims of Burma fled by the hundreds of thousands — including women, children, newborn babies and the elderly — to live in tent cities in Bangladesh rather than face conflict with the military and police in their home country. Their numbers in Bangladesh reached a staggering 1 million by late 2017, according to the Bangladeshi government, pushing camps to the breaking point as refugees began living outside the camps in temporary shelters, sometimes with nothing more than tarps supported by bamboo poles.

A peaceful resolution to one of the Indo-Pacific’s most pressing crises, however, could be within sight. As part of an ongoing bilateral negotiation, Bangladesh and Burma reached a deal in January 2018 to repatriate the Rohingya to Burma over a two-year period. Statements from both governments said Bangladesh would set up five transit camps on its side of the border, and Burma would set up two reception centers in its country. Burma “has reiterated its commitment to stop [the] outflow of [Burmese] residents to Bangladesh,” the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said.


The crisis allegedly erupted after Rohingya insurgents attacked police security posts on August 25, 2017, triggering a fierce military response. Doctors Without Borders said at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the first month of a crackdown the U.N. denounced as ethnic cleansing. More than 650,000 people have fled the violence since the outbreak of the most recent violence. By January 2018, Bangladesh had counted more than 1 million Rohingya refugees living in camps near its border with Burma, according to a report in The Times of India newspaper.

“So far, we’ve registered 1,004,742 Rohingya. They are given biometric registration cards,” said Saidur Rahman, a brigadier general with the Bangladesh Army who heads the registration project. Several thousand more had yet to be registered.

While the pressures posed by the influx of 1 million people created a sense of urgency around the repatriation project, international human rights watchers said the refugees’ safety should be the top priority. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman said the Rohingya should return voluntarily and only when they believe it is safe. “Major challenges have to be overcome,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said, according to Reuters. “These include ensuring they are told about the situation in their areas of origin … and are consulted on their wishes, that their safety is ensured.”

The United States expressed similar concerns. “The timeline is less important to us than the ability for people to safely and voluntarily go home,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. Nauert, who visited the region in 2017, noted that only a few months had passed since many Rohingya had fled their homes. “I can’t imagine anyone would feel safe at this point in returning,” she said in January 2018.

While refugees expressed their fear of returning, they also face threats if they stay in their current makeshift homes. One of the most-pressing perils is disease. UNICEF reported in January 2018 that it had detected 4,011 suspected cases of diphtheria in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and that 21 people had died from the disease. The outbreak prompted the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to embark upon a massive vaccination program. By the end of December 2017, 150,000 children age 6 weeks to 7 years had received a combined vaccine, while 166,000 others in the 7- to 17-year age bracket were given tetanus and diphtheria vaccines during a three-week campaign.

Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium that primarily infects the throat and upper airways. The disease is spread through direct physical contact and when infected people sneeze or cough around others. The disease had nearly been eradicated in Bangladesh, so its outbreak in the camps caught the medical community off guard. Bangladesh authorities were prepared for other diseases and moved quickly to inoculate new arrivals against cholera and measles, according to a report by Agence France-Presse. However, the emergence of diphtheria, which can lead to heart failure, paralysis and death if left untreated, was a surprise. “We were taken aback when tests confirmed diphtheria in the camps. It was a long-lost disease in our country,” said Abdus Salam, the chief medical officer for Cox’s Bazar district, where the camps are located. “Immediately, we acquired vaccines from abroad for an emergency response.”

High rates of vaccination mean diphtheria is now rare in much of the world, although Yemen is currently suffering an outbreak, Agence France-Presse reported. The Rohingya, however, come from the impoverished Rakhine state, where many children are not vaccinated.

A Rohingya child looks at a refugee camp from a hill near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Reuters

Making matters even more complicated is that the number of Rohingya in refugee camps is exploding even when no one crosses a border. The aid agency Save the Children issued a report that said 48,000 babies will be born in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2018, The Associated Press (AP) reported. The babies most likely face unsanitary conditions and a risk of disease and malnutrition. “The camps have poor sanitation and are a breeding ground for diseases like diphtheria, measles and cholera, to which newborn babies are particularly vulnerable,” said Rachael Cummings, the agency’s health advisor in Cox’s Bazar. “This is no place for a child to be born.”

A Bangladeshi official called the projection of 48,000 babies mind-boggling. “Simply, this will be disastrous and terrible for us,” said Priton Kumar Chowdhury, a deputy director of the government’s social services department in Cox’s Bazar, according to AP. “I can’t imagine it, and my brain does not actually know how to deal with this.”


The U.N. has declared the lack of Burmese citizenship for the Rohingya a big stumbling block in persuading them to return. Many Rohingya are denied citizenship and classified by the Burmese government as illegal migrants from Bangladesh — not ethnic minorities. Many of the Rohingya lack state-issued identification.

Burma’s government now says Rohingya Muslims are eligible to apply for citizenship if at least two generations of their families have lived in Burma, Immigration Minister Khin Ye told Radio Free Asia. “The requirements are that their grandparents and parents must have lived here and died here, that the applicant was born here and can speak the Burmese language, and that he or she wants to live here, among other things,” he said.

A young refugee who fled Burma by boat makes his way to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are being housed.

The Rohingya are referred to as “Bengalis” in Burma even though they have long lived in the country. “Foreigners, like the Bengalis, have the right to apply for citizenship if they want to,” Khin Ye said. He asserted that many Rohingya were brought to Burma as laborers during British occupation from 1824 until the nation gained independence in 1948. The Rohingya are physically and culturally more like the people of Bangladesh and India than to the ethnic Bamar majority in Burma.

Despite Khin Ye’s assertion about when the Rohingya came to Burma, many scholars say they descend from Arab and Persian traders who arrived in what is now western Burma more than 1,000 years ago. The Rohingya people in the eighth century lived in an independent kingdom in Arakan, which is now known as the Rakhine state in Burma, according to The Wall Street Journal newspaper. From the ninth century to the 14th century, the Rohingya were immersed in Islam through Arab traders. In 1784, the king of Burma conquered Arakan, forcing thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bengal. From 1824 to 1942, the British made Burma a province of British India and migrated many Rohingya workers back to Burma to build infrastructure projects. When Japan invaded in 1942, it pushed out the British and prompted Burmese nationalists to attack the Muslim communities they thought had benefited from colonial rule.

Khin Ye explained why his government does not treat the Rohingya as an ethnic group in Burma, which is 90 percent Buddhist. He said that during the colonial era, Burmese “had no right to protect and manage our country,” meaning that the Rohingya were never invited to stay by the country’s citizens. “So, unless they are blood-related with our people, there is no way they [can be automatically considered] our citizens,” he said.

That perspective leaves refugees wary of returning. Since repatriation must be voluntary under international law, getting the refugees to return without citizenship could be difficult. “I will go back again only if our rights and safety are guaranteed — forever,” said 71-year-old refugee and Rohingya Muslim farmer Hamid Hussain, according to Reuters. Hussain first fled Burma for Bangladesh in 1992 and went home the following year under a repatriation deal, only to repeat the journey in 2017 when violence broke out again.

Authorities in Burma say this time will be different, while human rights advocates insist that openness in the repatriation process is the best way to protect everyone involved. While the UNHCR was not directly involved in negotiating the repatriation agreement, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters it “will be very important to have UNHCR fully involved in the operation to guarantee that the operations abide by international standards.”

The refugees, he said, need permanent structures to live in to ensure their health and well-being. “A huge effort of reconciliation is needed to allow it to take place properly,” he said. “The worst would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in [Burma], keeping an artificial situation for a long time and not allowing for them to regain their normal lives.”