Leaked ASEAN report shows Rohingya must determine their own repatriation process

Photo:DFID

A leaked ASEAN report ignores risks to Rohingya and violence in Rakhine, showing that plans for repatriation will need to be driven by refugees themselves.

By Skylar Lindsay

A leaked ASEAN report seen by AFP and others has drawn sharp criticism from Rohingya groups, civil society, and former state officials and diplomats across ASEAN.

The report allegedly claims that 500,000 of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will make a “smooth” return to Myanmar over the next two years.

The region’s leaders will meet in Bangkok for the ASEAN summit on June 22-23 and the new report is on the agenda. ASEAN made a commitment to support Myanmar with its Rohingya repatriation efforts.

Photo: Tasnim News Agency

To fulfil this promise, ASEAN must change the mandate of the team behind the report—the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre)—so that they specifically address violent conflict in Rakhine and the marginalisation of both the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine. Any viable repatriation plan must be driven by input from Rohingya in both Bangladesh and Rakhine State and must respect their right to self-determination.

The report doesn’t assess refugee needs

The AHA assessment focused on physical safety, material safety, registration of the Rohingyas and cohesion. But according to AFP, the report makes no mention of the war crimes committed by the Myanmar military in 2017 that drove the Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh or the ongoing war between the military and the Arakan Army (AA).

Voice of Rohingya, an advocacy organisation, said the report puts the “future of Rohingyas and lives of Rohingya Genocide survivors” at risk. The report purportedly assesses the needs of 500,000 refugees, the official number given by the Myanmar government, but many sources suggest the real number of displaced people is closer to 900,000 or more.

Photo: Tasnim News Agency

The report also reportedly doesn’t use the term Rohingya, instead referring to the refugees as “Muslims”, despite the fact that ASEAN states have regularly called them by their name. This choice of language is a hallmark of hate speech and rhetoric that marginalises the Rohingya.

The Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR) released a statement calling out these shortcomings.

“We want to make it clear to the world that ASEAN and UNHCR do not speak on behalf of the Rohingya refugees. Rohingya refugees can speak for ourselves. There will be no repatriation without talking to us,” ARSPHR said in the statement.

It’s unclear whether the AHA team consulted with any Rohingya refugees, and if they did consult them, how.

The Rohingya Women Empowerment and Advocacy Network (RWEAN), a refugee group based in Bangladesh, condemned the report, calling on ASEAN leaders to involve the refugees in decision making.

“We would like to question the ASEAN leaders: why are you going to decide about Rohingya repatriation without seeking any justice and [sic] peaceful environment in Northern Rakhine State, and excluding Rohingya representatives in any decision making?” said RWEAN.

The report authors claim the assessment reflects their mandate. ASEAN AHA Centre Executive Director Adelina Kamal responded to the criticism, saying news about the assessment was taken out of context.

Photo: VOA

“Our assessment is very focused – tasked by ASEAN leaders to conduct needs assessment [sic] to identify areas that ASEAN can offer to facilitate the repatriation process so it’s very focused – it’s just to facilitate,” said Kamal. “The focus of the report is preliminary assessment. It’s not a repatriation plan.”

But repatriation continues to pose massive risks to refugees

There are still 128,000 Muslims living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), many of them Rohingya. Some have been awaiting resettlement since 2012. Seven soldiers from the Myanmar military who had been jailed for carrying out the Inn Din Massacre were recently released. The report also claimed that local residents “felt safe” around the Border Guard Police (BGP), the same forces who allegedly helped in the ethnic cleansing campaign in 2017.

Amnesty International has recently accused the Myanmar military of committing war crimes in their campaign against the AA.

“It’s ludicrous to think that returns in this context could be safe, voluntary or dignified,” said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International.

ASEAN must change course to follow through on its promise to support repatriation

At the upcoming ASEAN summit later this month, the regional block has a chance to shift the mandate of the AHA to explicitly focus on the voices of the Rohingya, both in Bangladesh and Rakhine State. Local Rakhine communities must also have the opportunity to raise the challenges they face and barriers to sustainable security in the area.

“ASEAN should be playing a key role in advancing human rights and protecting the life and dignity of minorities living in member states,” said Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network. “But instead they have covered for the crimes of Burma in this report and vastly underestimated the obstacles which face safe and equitable repatriation of the Rohingya to Burma.”

Studies and surveys of refugees in Cox’s Bazar are already happening. The Rohingya Survey 2019, conducted by research group Xchange in March and April, presents quotes and data from interviews with 1,200 refugees.

The survey found that among the refugees, women are far less connected to the outside world than men, making them less able to make their voices heard. 56% of men talk with fellow Rohingya outside the camp more than once per week, compared to 22% of women. This demonstrates that a needs assessment must work to curate the opinions and needs of women in the camps to counteract this inequality and ensure their voices are heard.

Many Rohingya refugees won’t return unless they’re guaranteed citizenship. The plan to begin repatriations last November failed when the first group of Rohingya refused to leave Cox’s Bazar unless they were granted citizenship and allowed to return to their homes.

“We welcome the term repatriation used in the report as we want to go home with our citizenship rights, safety and security and with full dignity.” said the RWEAN statement.

ASEAN’s current mandate is to support Myanmar in taking concrete steps that create a conducive environment for the refugees’ return. The first step towards a viable repatriation plan is a needs assessment that addresses the Rohingyas’ demands for citizenship, self-determination, and security, as well as threats stemming from the sustained conflict in Rakhine.

As one 28-year-old refugee said during The Rohingya Survey 2019, “I want to request the United Nations and World leaders to put pressure [sic] on the Myanmar government to give us our rights and take us back as soon as possible.”