In the past three months, 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma for a precarious exile in Bangladesh, part of the fastest-growing humanitarian emergency in the world. Yet not even noted humanitarians have shown interest in their plight. On a visit to Burma last week, Pope Francis did not mention the vicious campaign waged by the Burmese state against its Rohingya minority. In similar fashion, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi continues to equivocate about the crisis, a sharp reminder that political ambition can quickly trample humanitarians’ reputations — and that democratization is no guarantee of minority protection.
Everyone wants the Rohingya problem to just disappear. So the news that Burma and Bangladesh have agreed on a framework to begin returning the Rohingya — without referring to the continuing violence that is driving their exodus, and without any clear role for international human rights monitoring bodies — is as expected as it is depressing.
For this is the third Rohingya refugee crisis in 40 years, and the third precipitous return of refugees to a state unwilling to recognize the Rohingya minority’s right to citizenship. In these refugee crises, the international community chose repatriation as an expedient solution rather than trying to impose real change within Burma to end the persecution. If there is to be any hope that these coming returns will not end in disaster — in starvation, in violence, in repatriation while staring down the barrel of a gun — then the disastrous histories of the Rohingya repatriations in 1978 and 1992 must be exposed to critical scrutiny.
The first Rohingya refugees — 200,000 of them — fled Burma for Bangladesh in 1978. Bangladesh, an impoverished state that had only recently won its independence, insisted that these refugees could not stay. Burma was equally keen to receive them — and to benefit from the international aid that would follow the refugees across the border. The two governments reached a bilateral agreement, and repatriations began.
But the refugees did not want to return to an unrepentant Burma. They resisted. In response, food rations from the camps in Bangladesh were withdrawn, forcing reluctant Rohingya across the border. Despite being aware that the withdrawal of food was literally starving refugees into repatriation — the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s chief nutritionist even resigned in protest — the organization as a whole acquiesced. By the end of 1978, up to 10,000 refugees had died of malnutrition and related illnesses.
Fifteen years later, the Rohingya fled to Bangladesh once again. A new military junta had seized power in 1988, and had redoubled the persecution of the Rohingya. By the spring of 1992, a quarter-million refugees had crossed into Bangladesh. But once again, the Rohingya found no welcome there. Instead, Bangladesh began to force them back across the border.
UNHCR initially protested these forced repatriations, but by the end of 1993 it had announced its own plan to promote the refugees’ voluntary repatriation to “safe” conditions in Burma. The organization hoped to leverage its involvement in the repatriations into a greater presence in Burma.
Yet events on the ground in Bangladesh made a mockery of UNHCR’s supposed guarantee, as the organization charged by the international community with protecting all refugees, that the Rohingya’s return would be both safe and voluntary. Human rights organizations documented cases in which Bangladeshi officials beat refugees who voiced their opposition to the return plans. Doctors without Borders presented evidence suggesting that UNHCR had not informed many of the refugees that under international law they had the right to refuse repatriation.
In pursuit of a convenient political solution, the risks the Rohingya faced were swept to one side. Some UNHCR officials went as far as claiming that the Rohingya were not a persecuted minority under the 1951 Convention, because all Burmese were mistreated by the military regime. In a further breach of protocol, the senior UNHCR staff members involved in promoting the repatriation agreement included at least one influential Bangladeshi national. Multiple UNHCR colleagues recall her clear contempt for the Rohingya population during these negotiations: The refugees were labeled “primitives … [who] at the end of the day, will go where they are told to.”
As NGOs and some Western embassies watched in disbelief, UNHCR continued both to insist that it could effectively monitor return conditions, and that all the refugees could be cleared from Bangladesh and returned to Burma by the end of 1995. It was clear by the end of 1994 that this was a fantasy: The refugees UNHCR had returned to Burma were already fleeing back to Bangladesh.
UNHCR had many reasons for promoting the Rohingya’s repatriation. The organization was transitioning away from old Cold War certainties: Establishing a presence in Burma could bring new influence in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The high commissioner at the time, Sadako Ogata, would later court controversy with comments sympathetic to the military junta’s use of forced labor. Staff members were working under appalling conditions in the camps as Bangladesh sought to apply pressure to the refugees.
Yet however it is explained, UNHCR’s failure arguably made the advent of a third Rohingya crisis — the one we are facing today — as inevitable as it is horrifying. There is a danger that the same shortsighted, politically driven blunders will be repeated: decisions that prioritize the Rohingya refugees’ early return, without firm evidence of any reform or plans for their inclusion in Burma.
There is still time to choose a different course. The events of 2017 need not lead to the catastrophic outcomes that followed previous crises. UNHCR has responded to the news of a Bangladesh-Burma return agreement by warning that “it is critical returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely,” and stressing it has not been involved in these discussions.
But there is a $100 million funding shortfall for U.N. humanitarian work alone, and more money will be needed beyond February. Donor fatigue compounds the risk that Rohingya refugees may once more be sacrificed in exchange for a short-term solution and the distant promise of an open and democratic Burma — despite it being painfully evident that the Rohingya’s inclusion in that Burma will not be so easily negotiated.
History shows us very clearly that return is no answer to this refugee crisis. If the international community chooses to ignore this in the interest of expediency, future Rohingya will cast blame upon them, with good reason. To mishandle one refugee crisis may be regarded as a misfortune. To mishandle two looks like carelessness. But three? That would be nothing short of complicity.