An international NGO warned Thursday that Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim refugees may refuse to return there voluntarily and instead stay in sprawling camps in Bangladesh, creating a “grave security threat” with outbreaks of additional violence and recruitment by Muslim extremists.
A new 25-page report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which conducts research into violent conflict and conflict resolution, examines the events that led to deadly attacks on police outposts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents on Aug. 25 in northern Rakhine state. The attacks prompted a brutal military crackdown that targeted the Rohingya.
It also assesses the impact that the crisis, which has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya to seek safety across the border in southeastern Bangladesh, will have on Myanmar and offers possible international policy responses.
Though Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement on Nov. 23 for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown, the chance that many of them will return to northern Rakhine appears unlikely in the near future, the report said.
“Prospects are extremely dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees to their home areas in Myanmar in the short or medium term,” it said, adding that the repatriation agreement should be viewed as “a statement of intent rather than a sign that return is imminent.”
Myanmar has agreed to take back Rohingya who wish to return if they can prove prior residency in the country and show that they left after Oct. 9, 2016, the date on which a smaller-scale attack by ARSA provoked another crackdown by security forces.
“But the main obstacle to repatriation is that most are very unlikely to want to do so,” the report said, citing the untenable situation in northern Rakhine and the ongoing flow of Rohingya out of the region.
ICG cited other obstacles, including Myanmar’s lack of clarity as to whether the Rohingya will be allowed to return to their places of origin and reclaim their farmland; the provision of the issuance of National Verification Cards, which many Rohingya reject because they relegate them to a second-class status; and the fear that some may be arrested upon return if the government suspects them of being ARSA militants or supporters.
In addition, processing the paperwork for returning Rohingya and issuing them identification documents would overwhelm official capacity and resources, because only 300 returnees can be processed daily, the report said.
“Fundamentally, neither the government nor security forces possess the political will to create conditions for voluntary return and implement a credible and effective process to that end,” it said.
“This raises the prospect of a long-term concentration of hundreds of thousands of traumatized Rohingya confined to squalid camps in Bangladesh, with no obvious way out or hope for the future. That would not only be a human tragedy, but also a grave security threat,” it said.
“Such a context would be ripe for mobilizing further violent responses and potential transnational jihadist recruitment,” the report said.
With most of ARSA’s members in refugee camps in Bangladesh, the militant group may start carrying out cross-border attacks that could lead to clashes between the Bangladeshi and Myanmar armed forces, ICG said.
Furthermore, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups, which have expressed their solidarity with the Rohingya, have called for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders, representing a major security threat to the country, it said.
ICG recommended that the international community and policymakers remain engaged with Myanmar, continue development assistance, humanitarian support, and non-military engagement, minimize the impact of targeted sanctions on individuals who have committed wrongdoing so they do not affect the country’s economy, and engage with the military before imposing sanctions.
Repatriation in January
The report was issued the same day that Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, told diplomats in the country’s capital Naypyidaw that the country would begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in January.
Despite Myanmar’s agreement with Bangladesh for the voluntary return of Rohingya, there has been no sign of a real effort to move them back.
“We are going to form a joint working committee within three weeks,” he said. “We will start the process of accepting them back two months after the date on which we signed the memorandum of understanding.”
“As soon as they [the Rohingya] return to Rakhine, they have to have an identification card, such as a national Verification Card, that can identify who they are,” he said. “If they have this, then they will be in the national verification process, and they can go on to apply for citizenship.”
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens because it does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.
Win Myat Aye also heads a government committee created in September to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The report called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
The minister, who was discussing repatriation efforts by the Union Enterprises for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development (UEHRD), also said the government would not let refugees stay in temporary camps for long and would rebuild within two months the homes of those whose houses burned.
About 600 Hindus who fled attacks by Muslim militants on their villages also want to return to northern Rakhine.
This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.