The 650,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled what the UN human rights chief has called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” must have the right to return to their homes in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar. To say otherwise would be to concede to those who forced them out – the security forces and militias who have raped and beaten civilians, burned houses and killed even infants. Authorities say the campaign is directed against militants who attacked police, but the civilian toll speaks for itself. Despite this, some of the Rohingya now living in wretched conditions across the border in Bangladesh have said they wish to go back.
It is equally clear that refugees must not be forced to return. Many more of them, according to NGOs supporting them, are determined never to go back or are terrified of doing so without guarantees of their security, property, livelihoods and freedom of movement. Some were persuaded to return after escaping previous waves of violence, only to find their lives in peril again. Previous episodes of displacement and return “do not inspire confidence”, the House of Commons international development committee has warned, noting the failure to consult refugees and expressing its grave concerns about plans to send them back.
Myanmar has said it plans to house 30,000 in a “transition camp”. Consider its record. Around 120,000 Rohingya who returned after violence in 2012 are held in internment camps in central Rakhine state, with another 200,000 in villages with similar restrictions on their movements.
“Parts of the camps are literally cesspools,” Unicef’s spokesperson Marixie Mercado reported last week. She noted that restrictions have got even tighter since 2016, making it still harder to deliver aid and worsening conditions. Education and healthcare are desperately deficient, but accessing services outside is often impossible. Inhabitants must pay for a permit even if they are leaving for medical treatment, and need a doctor’s certificate.