No time to wait
Before the Rohingya crisis becomes a regional threat, international community must wake up to the fact that the refugees need to be repatriated soon
It has been over five years since more than seven lakh Rohingyas from Rakhine province of Myanmar fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown against them, following attacks by a rebel group.
Entire villages were burnt to the ground, thousands of families were killed or separated and massive human rights violations were reported.
Rohingya are Muslim ethnic minority group, many of who have lived in Buddhist-majority Myanmar for generations. They face widespread discrimination in the Buddhist-majority country. They are the world's largest stateless population.
Since they have not been recognised as citizens or permanent residents by Myanmar, they have limited access to education, jobs and health services, as a result of which they live in chronic poverty and marginalisation.
The long simmering conflict with Rohingyas exploded on August 25, 2017 when Myanmar's military launched, what it called, a clearance campaign in Rakhine in response to attacks on police and border guards by a Rohingya militant group. More than seven lakh Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, as troops allegedly committed large-scale crimes against the community members.
Hundreds of thousands of terrified Rohingyas began flooding the beaches and paddy fields of southern Bangladesh. It was children who caught the attention of the international community. They brought with them the accounts of unspeakable violence and brutality perpetrated by Myanmar's military.
More than 1,50,000 Rohingyas are still confined in the camps of Rakhine state, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric who, last month, noted "the unflagging aspirations for an inclusive future."
Currently, Bangladesh is hosting more than one million stateless Rohingyas in temporary shelters, whose future remains uncertain. More than half of them are children, with many born in this limbo. They have spent the last half-decade on a narrow strip of hilly land in temporary shelters in highly congested camp settings of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
The exodus of the people fleeing attacks and violence joined around 3,00,000 Rohingyas who had already fled to Bangladesh during previous waves — cumulatively forming the world's largest refugee camp.
More than 90,000 have fled to Thailand, about 20,000 to India and over 90,000 smaller groups have made their way to other countries including Indonesia and Nepal.
China brokered a 2017 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingyas. But Bangladesh expressed frustration at what it called Myanmar's inaction in taking the refugees back. The Rohingyas too have balked at returning without having their longstanding grievances addressed.
The safety situation in Myanmar has worsened since a military takeover in February 2021. In March this year, the US said the oppression of Rohingyas in Myanmar amounts to genocide, after authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities and systematic campaign against the ethnic minority by the military.
Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of the crisis. Overcrowding from population boom in refugee camps has placed a strain on the country's infrastructure. The refugees lack access to services, education, food, clean water and proper sanitation. They are also vulnerable to natural disasters and infectious disease transmission.
The plight of Rohingyas, despite being one of the largest refugee crises today, has remained largely absent from headlines since the brutal attacks on them by the Myanmar military and their exodus in 2017.
The Rohingya issue has gone to international court where Myanmar denied charges of any wrongdoing. But global powers are not satisfied with Myanmar's position. The court, in 2020, ordered Myanmar to do all it could to prevent genocide against the Rohingyas.
An independent commission set up by Myanmar government, in 2020, concluded that there were reasons to believe security forces committed war crimes against the Rohingya — but no genocide.
Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been highlighting the plight of Rohingya refugees at all international forums as also in her bilateral talks with leading countries, including India, in her bid to ensure their safe repatriation to Myanmar.
On the eve of her two-day visit to New Delhi from September 6, Sheikh Hasina said Rohingya were "a big burden" and suggested India could play a role in persuading Myanmar to take them back.
Speaking at a meeting of military officials from 24 countries in the Indo-Pacific region on September 13, in Dhaka, she said that the prolonged stay of more than a million Rohingya refugees in crowded camps in the country has become a serious security and stability concern.
"Apart from their own miseries, their prolonged presence is causing a serious impact on the economy, environment, security and socio-political stability of Bangladesh," she said.
India has built infrastructure in Rakhine state for Rohingyas but has traditionally avoided telling Myanmar directly to ensure their safe passage back home because of concerns that such a move could push Myanmar closer to China. India also considers Myanmar as important to containing cross-border insurgencies in the Northeast.
International community should understand the gravity of the situation before the crisis becomes a regional threat in terms of environmental degradation, security and health issues.
Most refugee crises end with an eventual repatriation. Return of the Rohingyas to their homes in Rakhine in safety, security and dignity is the only solution to the crisis.
It is necessary on the part of Myanmar to build trust among Rohingyas and create a situation conducive to their return by jettisoning discriminatory laws and practices, and treat them as its citizens by providing all benefits given to its nationals. It must guarantee security and safety to Rohingyas by deploying civilian monitors from international community in Rakhine state.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has rightly emphasized that "full and effective participation of the Rohingya people is an inherent part of a Myanmar-led solution to the crisis."
The international community must ensure that the root causes of the Rohingya problem are addressed and the violation of human rights and atrocities committed against the Rohingyas are accounted for.
Perpetrators of all heinous crimes against the Rohingyas should be held accountable in order to provide justice to the victims, which will contribute to a sustainable and inclusive political future for the country and its people.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal