Will Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Bangladesh expedite Rohingya repatriation?

The world must remember the refugees’ lives depend on how the international community responds to caring for them as Bangladesh alone cannot afford to support this huge Rohingya population

Kamal Uddin Mazumder Aug 20, 2022
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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (center) walks inside Camp 4, part of the sprawling Kutupalong camp that houses Rohingya in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Aug. 16, 2022 (Photo: Benar News)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made an official trip to Bangladesh from August 14-17. It was the first ever visit to Bangladesh by any top UN official since the office came up in 1993. It came ahead of the fifth anniversary of the month of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh. 

Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Bangladesh has been hosting over 1.2 million forcefully displaced Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar district despite security problems. 

Acknowledging Bangladesh’s great difficulty in dealing with the crisis, Bachelet assured the UN’s continued efforts to realize the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. She assured this to Foreign Minister Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen. Dhaka feels that the protracted stay of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh could spark radicalism and transnational crimes, affecting regional stability.

Meeting refugees

During her trip to Cox’s Bazar, the UN official visited camps housing Rohingya refugees and met the refugees, officials and NGOs. Bachelet appreciated Bangladesh’s humanitarian gesture towards the Rohingyas.

Bangladesh hopes that the UN Human Rights body chief‘s visit will refocus attention on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, discussions over which have been stalled or delayed due to a lack of cooperation from the Myanmar government.

It is important to have a conducive environment for repatriation as the last two attempts have fallen through due to a trust deficit among the Rohingyas about their safety and security in the Rakhine state. The UN official can cooperate with other UN bodies, including UNDP and UNHCR, to undertake projects in Rakhine to create an environment for the return of the Rohingyas. 

It is clear now that, without a sustainable and conducive repatriation environment, in which citizenship, safety and the right to work in Myanmar are guaranteed, any attempt to repatriate them will fail.

Global pressure

Bangladesh expects that the visit will play an active role in the quick and safe repatriation of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. A number of countries and organizations have influence on Myanmar, especially India, China, Japan, ASEAN, the European Union, and Singapore. The UN Security Council and ASEAN have not done enough to force the coup leaders to facilitate the repatriation process. The UN human rights body may play a vital role here in bringing all the stakeholders to the negotiation table as soon as possible.

The human rights violations committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide. The UN’s highest court ruled last month that a landmark case accusing the military-ruled Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya could go ahead. 

Analysts and rights activists believe that the verdict has created a new front for the world to mount pressure on Myanmar’s military to ensure justice for the Rohingya. It is time for an urgent, renewed effort to restore human rights and democracy in Myanmar and ensure that perpetrators of the systemic human rights violations and abuses are held to account.

UN must act

The United Nations human rights chief can take practical measures to convince the world leaders to ramp up the pressure on Myanmar’s military rulers to cease violence against the country’s own people and quickly repatriate them.

Crimes against humanity are still happening in the Rakhine state. The human rights office continues to receive reports of ongoing violations of the rights of Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine, which include allegations of killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests as well as widespread restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement, health and education. 

Hundreds of thousands of people in several parts of Rakhine also remain deprived of their rights to freedom of movement, basic services and livelihoods as well as their right to a nationality. Over the last 40 years, it is evident that the Rohingyas have been subjected to a slow genocide by Myanmar. 

Fiscal burden

For the last five years, Bangladesh has been bearing the substantial socio-economic burden of supporting the persecuted Rohingyas, which has now become next to impossible as there has been a significant slashing of external donations for supporting the Rohingyas.

Humanitarian agencies need more than $881 million this year to support approximately 1.4 million people, including 920,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char, and around 540,000 Bangladeshis in neighbouring communities. 

As of May 2022, the Joint Response Plan is only 13 per cent funded. The world must remember the refugees’ lives depend on how the international community responds to caring for them as Bangladesh alone cannot afford to support this huge Rohingya population. 

To ease pressure on the overcrowded border camps, the Bangladesh government has developed Bhashan Char with all modern amenities to provide temporary shelter for more than 100,000 Rohingyas. Without the relocation of the refugees to a new location, it will not be possible to provide safety and security in the overcrowded camps. 

Bangladesh hopes that the High Commissioner will use her good office to effectively engage with Myanmar and repatriate the forcibly displaced Rohingyas. It would be a real achievement if the displaced Rohingya people are able to return to their homes in Myanmar in a just, safe and sustainable manner. 

(The author is a security and strategic affairs analyst in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at kamalmazumderju@gmail.com)

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