The international political discourse around the Rohingya crisis is increasingly around repatriation. And that is hardly surprising.
For anyone who is either ignorant of the situation or at least deliberately refuses to engage too deeply with the problem, that seems to be the most immediately obvious and just resolution to what has befallen the Rohingya people at the hands of the Myanmar army. But this would be neither the right thing to do, nor the most practical.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an initial repatriation agreement all the way back in mid-January. Yet since Myanmar entered into these negotiations on 23 Nov, they have pushed out a further 70,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
And though the flow of refugees has slowed down in recent weeks, it does continue. Rohingya refugees are not going from Bangladesh back to Myanmar. They continue to flee in the opposite direction.
But the talk of repatriation does fit the purposes of both the government of Bangladesh and of that of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Bangladesh gets to look tough on immigration as the attitudes toward the refugees in the country are hardening.
And the government of Myanmar gets to look like they are doing something for the Rohingya, even as the autonomous military continues to ‘cleanse’ Rohingya lands.
Talking about repatriation deflects attention from the real challenges that the burgeoning Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh is facingAzeem Ibrahim
The fact of the matter is that Myanmar was never sincere about returning the Rohingya. The military, the conservative Buddhist establishment and large swathes of the population believe that the dark-skinned, Muslim Rohingya fundamentally do not belong in their Buddhist, ethnically Burmese state.
They are hardly going to put in place all the logistics and the security measures needed to repatriate the 700,000+ refugees from Cox’s Bazar, just as they have finally succeeded in implementing their long-established genocidal rhetoric.
Nor is there much left for the Rohingya to return to. Their lands and cattle have already been seized, redistributed and are now being harvested by their former Buddhist neighbours.
Even if individual Rohingya still had the documentary paper-trail to prove ownership of these assets, they are hardly likely to obtain legal redress from the state which has gone to such lengths to purge them from the lands of their birth.
But just to be sure, the Myanmar authorities have seized and destroyed Rohingya documents at every given opportunity for decades. To be clear: it would be crazy and wrong to try to drive the Rohingya back into the hands of the very assailants who have waged an all-out war on their people.
And there are virtually no arrangements in place to even make such a repatriation possible – all there is in place are some purely symbolic, political statements by two complicit governments. There is no Rohingya repatriation happening. And there shouldn’t be one either.
But while the motives of Bangladesh and Myanmar to pretend that there is a plan for repatriation are transparent, it is equally important to understand why many other actors in the international community are playing along – especially among the diplomatic circles of the Western capitals who are supposed to be genuinely concerned about humanitarian issues.
Talking about repatriation deflects attention from the real challenges that the burgeoning Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh is facing. And especially, by pretending that things are on course for being ‘fixed’, our leaders and diplomats can deflect attention from our own humanitarian responsibilities: “Of course we’ll send blankets and food aid to the refugee camps.
But, the crisis has a clear path to resolution ahead. There is no need for us to get involved any more deeply with this, and certainly no need for us to intervene to guarantee the security of the Rohingya refugees, or to ensure that their refugee status in Bangladesh is normalised and properly defended.”
The talk of repatriation for Myanmar and Bangladesh is cheap. But for us it is not. It is extremely expensive. It’s just that the high price for our moral cowardice will be paid by the Rohingya themselves. But our leaders seem content with this situation.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.