The government of Myanmar issued a statement on Saturday saying it had repatriated the first batch of Rohingya refugees – a family of five – from Bangladesh. This claim generated immediate scepticism among the UN refugee agency and Bangladeshi authorities. Diplomats and human rights groups have expressed grave concerns ever since the idea of repatriating nearly 700,000 Rohingya who have sought asylum in Bangladesh was first aired in January. These men, women and children fled the unimaginable persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s military, government and Buddhist majority. Denied citizenship in a country that has been their home for centuries and dehumanised by the state for decades, the Rohingya were last year compelled to flee en masse as their villages were burned down, their homes razed, their women raped and more than 10,000 slaughtered in what the Myanmar government shamelessly branded “clearance operations”.
Myanmar’s murderous rage against the Rohingya has not dwindled and there is not even a hint of remorse on the part of the government. Before any repatriation occurs, there must be an acceptance of the crimes committed against the Rohingya and a commitment by the government to grant them full citizenship, equality under law and protection from the mobs it has incited. On the eve of the first repatriation, none of this had happened. While the world’s attention has been trained on conflicts elsewhere, the condition of the Rohingya has continued to deteriorate. Under such circumstances, their forced repatriation is not a remedy but rather a continuation of the Myanmar government’s brutality. The ill-considered January deal with Bangladesh to repatriate 1,500 Rohingya a week – which would have taken almost a decade to bring home all the refugees – went nowhere. Instead of revising the plan and taking proactive measures to improve the safety of the Rohingya, the Myanmar government has resorted to subterfuge.
The family “repatriated” on Saturday was part of the 6,000 displaced Rohingya stranded in a camp on the Myanmar side of the no-man’s land that separates the country from Bangladesh. They were not returnees. The UN refugee agency was kept in the dark and Bangladesh says it had no involvement. Far from providing genuine help, the Myanmar government was engaged in a self-serving PR exercise that has backfired. It seems that Aung San Suu Kyii, Myanmar’s de facto ruler, has not learned any lessons. Her government wants to erase this problem, not fix it. What will become of the family that has been returned to Rakhine state? Last week, the UAE pledged Dh7.35 million in aid to the Rohingya. Others should follow, mindful that this represents a yardstick against which future refugee repatriations – in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – will be measured. The pressure on Myanmar to do the right thing must not ease.