Five years ago this week, the Myanmar military unleashed a ruthless offensive against the Rohingya communities scattered across the western part of the country’s Rakhine State. Launched in nominal response to scattered attacks by Rohingya militants, the “clearance operation” saw soldiers raze homes and shoot at villagers, and eventually drive more than 700,000 terrified civilians across the Naf River into Bangladesh.
In the first month of the campaign, Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children, suffered violent deaths. The United Nations’ human rights chief later described the military’s actions as “acts of appalling barbarity” and possible “acts of genocide.” The mass flight of Rohingya brought the number in the refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar to more than 1 million, where they remain, five years on, in an unsafe and unstable limbo.
With Myanmar now mired in a nationwide political struggle between the military junta and its raft of opponents, there is little chance of a resolution to the massive refugee crisis generated by the military’s assaults.
The dire extent of the crisis, and the nearly insurmountable obstacles to its resolution, were laid out in a briefing published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) yesterday. “To date, not a single refugee has returned to Rakhine State through the formal repatriation mechanism that Myanmar and Bangladesh set up in November 2017, soon after the exodus started,” stated the briefing, which took the form of a Q&A with ICG consultant Thomas Kean.
It noted that two attempts to facilitate repatriations – in 2018 and 2019 – have failed. This was a result of reluctance on the part of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, which “showed no sign of addressing refugees’ concerns on key points, such as citizenship, security and livelihoods.” (Leading members of the NLD government frequently referred to Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many claiming to have lived in Myanmar for generations.) It also had to do with the outbreak in late 2018 of intense fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine rebel group that is seeking the creation of an autonomous Rakhine State, which made returns logistically impossible in many parts of the state.
The military’s seizure of power in February 2021 has only thrown up further obstacles to the resolution of the crisis, absorbing the remaining international energy directed toward Myanmar and freezing any move toward repatriation. It is also challenged by the uncertain political situation in western Myanmar. Rakhine State has mostly evaded the post-coup violence that has erupted in many other parts of the country, largely thanks to a ceasefire that was signed between the AA and the central government a few months before the coup. But the recent fraying of relations between the two camps, and the possibility of a resumption of conflict, casts a further doubt on the possibility of repatriations.
Meanwhile, as the ICG briefing notes, life for the million-odd people stranded in Bangladesh has only worsened over the past five years. Conditions in the rambling refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district are unsanitary and unsafe, and the camps are ridden with crime, violence, and destructive dry season fires. This has pushed unknown numbers of Rohingya to return to Myanmar via informal channels, or to embark on expensive and deeply perilous sea journeys to seek asylum in Malaysia or Indonesia.
For its own part, the Bangladeshi government, eager to be rid of the heavy burden of hosting so many refugees, has come up with its own bespoke temporary solution to the refugee presence. In 2020, it began relocating Rohingya communities to Bhasan Char, an isolated island in the Bay of Bengal. According to ICG, nearly 30,000 people have since been relocated to the island, which the Bangladeshi government hopes will eventually house around 100,000. But human rights advocates have opposed the move, claiming the island is inhospitable, bereft of employment opportunities, and prone to extreme weather events. In the early stages of the relocations, they documented many instances in which civilians were coerced into moving to the island.
The ICG briefing states that the relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char reflects a “hardening” of the Bangladeshi government’s position toward the refugee population. This has been brought about by a combination at frustration at the lack of action toward repatriation over the past five years and the rise in crime and violence in and around the camps, which “has heightened public pressure on the Bangladeshi government to adopt a tougher stance.” It is hard not to see this attitude hardening further as long as repatriation remains impossible.
The ICG does note some cautiously positive developments within Rakhine State, which could help facilitate repatriations at some point in the future. The main one of these is that the civil war between the AA and the military has in some senses recalibrated the ethnic dynamics in Rakhine, and “portraying the Burman-led central government, rather than the Muslim minority, as the real enemy of the Rakhine people.” This has been matched by AA efforts to reach out to remaining Rohingya communities in Rakhine State; the group has also promised to include Rohingya representatives in the elaborate administrative structures that it has created in Rakhine since the coup, as Kyaw Hsan Hlaing reported for The Diplomat last year.
But while these developments suggest long-term improvements in the communal relations of Rakhine State, they are unlikely to make much difference in the near-term. The overall impression given by the ICG is that the situation in Bangladesh will continue to fester, even if the current crisis engulfing Myanmar is brought to a stable and satisfactory conclusion, and that foreign governments and international humanitarian organizations should direct their energies toward ameliorating the poor conditions in the camps. Given the slim possibility of repatriation to Rakhine State, “it seems increasingly clear that third-country resettlement should be part of the conversation about durable solutions for this population.”
Even if this slow process were to begin immediately, the challenge is of such a scale that it is likely to be completed anytime soon. As it stands, there is every likelihood that the Rohingya refugee crisis will remain unresolved five years from now.