Myanmar’s mily can’t call shots on Rohingya repatriation

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The Rohingya refugee crisis is not over. Rohingyas fled Myanmar in 2017 and afterwards, attempting to escape the genocidal advance of the country’s military. It burned their homes. It razed their villages. And it killed whomever it could find. More than 700,000 people were forced from the country. It was an exodus not seen in more than 50 years of refugee movement by the Rohingya out of Myanmar. They had been persecuted openly since the 1970s, but never so viciously as in the stage of the genocide from 2017 on.
Rohingya refugees fled by boat to Bangladesh, to Cox’s Bazar. That is where many of them now live; confined to a refugee camp for more than five years, they languish in poverty and squalor. But the refugee crisis is not over. With Myanmar in a state of cruel civil war, and the Rohingya still exiled from their home, the refugee movement continues.
The Washington Post reports that Rohingya women, especially, are attempting to pay smugglers to take them and their children away from the camps in Cox’s Bazar. Using UN statistics, the Post estimates that more than 3,500 Rohingya have attempted to flee their confinement in 2022, which represents a fivefold increase from the year before: Tellingly, this is the largest number of Rohingya attempting to leave Bangladesh or any country since the mass movement under threat of violence in 2017.
They wish to move on because the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar are not just inadequate: They are horrific. The adults cannot work – at least legally, so they must resort to the illicit economy. The children are malnourished and risk famine. Bangladeshi authorities are prone to turn blind eyes to gang activity in the camp, and the illegal use of trafficked Rohingya labor in India and Bangladesh itself. This is not a place the Rohingya mothers wish their children to grow up – a camp out of place and out of time, where safe return home is a distant and unlikely dream.
And there is another thing. All the while, the military junta that controls the government of Myanmar is determined to get the Rohingya back under its control. Ever since the coup in 2021, the junta has attempted to govern Myanmar through force. It has fought ever since a brutal civil war against the supporters of the ousted civilian government, and various ethnic parties and militias. In a war of all against all, the military has proven itself savage and violent. This is the government that attempts to recover the Rohingya refugees; it is made up of the very people, and the very military structures, which committed genocide against the Rohingya in 2017. The Rohingya know what they most fear – being repatriated to an unsafe country under the firm control of the military that wishes not just to do them harm, but to finish the job of exterminating them.
And yet this is what is at risk of happening. The military authorities have repeatedly attempted to negotiate repatriations with the Bangladesh government. In the most recent version of this deal, the first list submitted by the junta to Bangladeshi authorities includes more than 1,100 names. Bangladeshi authorities say that they are close to clearing everyone on this list for repatriation. They make no mention of the fact that in doing so, the Bangladeshi state is placing these people once more in the lions’ den. So this is why Rohingya mothers once again consider the dangerous prospect of attempting to transport their children over unsafe waters in unsound craft. They cannot stay where they are; they cannot go back in peace.
The international community may feel impotent when confronted with this challenge. The junta appears to be going nowhere: Myanmar’s civil war is complex, and it is also largely hidden from global view. The world cannot affect its outcome. But it can ensure justice for the Rohingya by other means. The legal challenge mounted in the International Criminal Court by Gambia is slowly moving on. It accuses the previous and current Myanmar authorities of genocide against the Rohingya. It has profound implications. If the Myanmar military were to be found guilty and liable, persecution of the Rohingya would be made more difficult. International agencies and the international community has the means and the incentive – the obligation – to protect the Rohingya with more energy and certainty.
But that effort needs to be sustained. It cannot happen by itself. If ever a new reason to support justice for all in Myanmar has emerged in the long years since the exodus in 2017, a new refugee crisis is it. The world did its best in 2017 to avert a worse genocide and to solve a pressing refugee crisis. Now is the time to do what it can to ensure the same, and to pursue justice wherever it can be found.