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Breaking the cycle of expulsion, forced repatriation, and exploitation for Rohingya

Demanding the ‘right of return’ for Rohingya eases the way for countries to forcibly repatriate them back to Myanmar. Again.

Rohingya refugees wait in a line for food aid at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 25 September 2017. KM Asad/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Even as Rohingya in Bangladesh watch their villages burn across the Naff river, even as trapped and internally displaced Rohingya desperately seek safe passage around the road blocks and landmines to Bangladesh, all talk it seems is focused on returning Rohingya to Myanmar.

As Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheik Hasina opens the door to 400,000 newly-arrived Rohingya victims of “ethnic cleansing” with one hand, she shakes her fist with the other, calling on Myanmar to stop referring to Rohingya as Bengali and accept their return from Bangladesh. In the same breath as calling on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action against Rohingya, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, speaks of “the right of return” for those who have left the country.

Meanwhile, the government of India is securing the borders and fighting it out in the Supreme Court, seeking permission to deport Rohingya who have fled previous waves of persecution. Thailand is preparing to resume the Navy “push-backs” of Rohingya escaping by sea, and Australia continues to offer Rohingya payments to return to Myanmar – as though the horrors of the last three weeks in Myanmar are just another temporary blip.

Rakhine was our homeland. We have only memories now.

For their part, as Rohingya activists desperately await news of their family and friends’ safe arrival in Bangladesh, they also proclaim that their hearts will never leave their ancestral lands in Rakhine state and that they will never lose hope of return. Their bodies, however, are another matter. Approximately 50% of all Rohingya villages now stand empty. Half the population has been displaced in the space of three weeks and unknown thousands – who will remain uncounted – have been killed.

For many Rohingya in diaspora, the latest exodus has displaced the very last of their family members from their homeland – now only dead bodies, ashes and memories are left. As a Rohingya friend living in London told me, “our home town was destroyed. We wept through each night waiting to receive news from our family. Yesterday we heard my brother and sister had finally reached Bangladesh. We are relieved, but they were the last of our relatives in Rakhine. Rakhine was our homeland. We have only memories now”.

The right to (forced) repatriation

There is a fine line to walk between securing the “right of return” for Rohingya and enabling refoulement or forced repatriation. Talk of the “right of return” correctly reasserts Rohingya’s rightful claim to belong to Myanmar. That citizenship is rightly theirs – even if they have no papers to prove it.1 But there is a distinct danger that the focus on return – before fleeing Rohingya families have even found shelter from the rain – could open the door for forced repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar.

Again.

And, in waiting for return, the failure to secure durable solutions for Rohingya outside Myanmar could lead to high risk journeys and exploitation, as they seek refuge in a third or fourth countries.

Again.

Rohingyas know all about forced repatriation. It’s a staple of their collective memories and oral histories. Each time Rohingya have fled, Myanmar has been outmanoeuvred and has been forced to accept Rohingya back into the country. In 1978, 270,000 Rohingya were driven from Myanmar into Bangladesh during Operation Nagamin – which targeted all Rohingya under the guise of an immigration sweep. Within sixteen months the vast majority had been returned to Myanmar, under duress with no change in conditions in Myanmar. Food rations were withheld in Bangladesh to ensure return. An estimated 12,000 Rohingya perished. Shortly afterwards and partially in response to the repatriations, the 1982 Citizenship Law was brought in leaving the vast majority of Rohingya unrecognised as citizens.

In 1991-2, 250,000 Rohingya fleeing human rights abuses in Myanmar arrived in Bangladesh.

Again.

Between 1992 and 1994, most of these refugees were returned to Myanmar.

Again.

Protests against repatriation broke out in the camps in Bangladesh. Excessive force was used to return them. UNHCR oversaw the repatriations and attempted to secure documentation for Rohingya. Promises did not materialise. There were no changes in the conditions on the ground in Rakhine State. Abuses in Myanmar continued unabated.

Again.

And this time around?

The de-facto leader of the Myanmar government, Suu Kyi, in her attempts to placate the growing international condemnation, has claimed that Myanmar stands ready to take back those “verified as refugees from this country (Myanmar)”. An announcement of a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on repatriations is expected in the next few days. But they will not verify the vast majority of Rohingya as their own. Rohingyas in Bangladesh are defiantly waving their ration cards printed with: “Country: Myanmar, Nationality: Rohingya”, but Myanmar persistently denies their roots and their collective identity.

The Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 19 September 2017. Can Erok/Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Stateless by design

Rohingya citizenship in its substantive sense was not singlehandedly revoked by the 1982 Citizenship Act, as is often claimed.2 A 40-year process, beginning under military rule and continuing until today, has slowly and torturously severed Rohingyas’ relationship with their homeland and the state. This has laid the groundwork for the persecution of Rohingya through law and policy as well as collective violence. The Myanmar military are not about to welcome them back. Much less in safety and dignity.

The production of Rohingya statelessness by the Myanmar military and government is best understood not as the result of historical disputes, but as a deliberate attempt to purify or cleanse the nation of racial and religious ‘others’ through bureaucratic means.3 Citizenship law in Myanmar – with its 135 fixed, immutable and externally-ascribed categories of ‘national races’ or Tai Yin Tha4 – serves an additional, less ‘bureaucratic’ purpose.

It is the single most powerful and immovable discourse there is regarding race and exclusion in Myanmar. It cements revisionist historical narratives that exclude Rohingya and legitimises primordial notions of race that feed hatred. As Hinton explains in his 2002 book Genocide and Anthropology, genocidal regimes “manufacture difference by constructing essentialized categories of identity and belonging … linked to emotionally resonant notions of purity and contamination”. Killing is then motivated out of resultant “ideologies of hate”5 a la the Nuremburg laws in Nazi Germany.

Rohingya statelessness is not a documentation issue: it’s a tool of genocide that aims to destroy the Rohingya as a group.

International efforts to address Rohingya statelessness over past decades have attempted to provide pathways to “paper citizenship” for Rohingya in the hope that human rights will somehow follow. It’s a vain hope echoed in the final report of the Myanmar government’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by Kofi Annan.

Yet Rohingya statelessness is not a documentation issue. It’s a tool of genocide that aims to destroy the Rohingya as a group, not only by removing their rights, but also by destroying their identity from the inside out. It is the statelessness that Hannah Arendt and Raphael Lemkin6 wrote about in the 1940s – the kind that foreshadowed and preceded the holocaust, not the kind for which UNHCR usually offers technical assistance to states to resolve. Indeed, as Rohingyas know only too well, the government’s documentation processes cost them the right to self-identify as Rohingya. For this reason, most Rohingya do not seek documentation, or paper citizenship, at any cost. They know the state has been destroying their identity and their collective “belonging” to Myanmar over decades.

Rohingya that cannot be removed from Myanmar by bureaucratic means or through the production of their statelessness, are removed through military operations and pogroms that have taken place over decades and have recently escalated. What we are witnessing now is the Myanmar military attempting to prevent a repeat of the past cycles of repatriation – an attempt to remove them from the territory and sever their links to home. Forever. Shooting Rohingyas in the back as they flee, placing landmines in their flight paths across the border, targeting babies and children, burning Rohingya village after Rohingya village. By law, land, once burnt, reverts to ownership of the state. These tactics are all designed to prevent return and complete the “unfinished business”.

A bleak future

Survival for Rohingya in their homeland, for the time being, has become untenable. This is devastating not only for the most recent Rohingya victims, but also for the many Rohingya living in diaspora. It is absolutely right that Myanmar is internationally condemned for its genocidal project. But to break the decades-long cycle of displacement, repatriation, and exploitation of Rohingya, it is to also necessary to ensure Rohingya are able to live in safety and dignity outside the country. Not contained in camps for decades, not dependent on aid or kept in limbo with irregular status, not denied access to integration and resettlement programmes. Instead, provided with opportunities for work and education, opportunities for movement and family reunification across borders, opportunities for meaningful contribution to the localities they’ve ended up in.

Again.

Each Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in recent years has been accompanied by a spike in the numbers of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh, seeking safety and security elsewhere. As we witnessed in 2012, as Rohingya become increasingly desperate the levels of extortion and exploitation they face on their journeys rise as well. Those unable to pay the full cost of their passage frequently become trapped by debt bondage into horrific labour conditions, such as in the factories and rubbish dumps in India. They are imprisoned in jungle camps, where they are beaten and tortured to extort money from their relatives in Malaysia and Thailand. Some die on route or are killed in the camps when they become a financial liability to the smugglers.

As long as Rohingya have no options for safe migration and decent work to support their families, the prosecutions of traffickers, even the high-profile cases recently in Thailand, will not bring about the end of these forms of exploitation. There are around one and a half million Rohingya living outside Myanmar. Of these, many are in situations of protracted displacement in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, India and beyond.

Some have been there for decades. Some have tried two or three countries and have been repeatedly displaced. Some have been stuck in indefinite detention for years. In these conditions they continue to struggle for their survival. Unable to regularise their status, they eke out a living in dangerous and insecure jobs in the informal economy, without security or protection from arrest, dependent on the good will of local populations, and sometimes the subject of politically-instigated hate-campaigns.

Many Rohingya in the diaspora are traumatised by the atrocities they have already borne or witnessed, and their daily lives are little more than hand-to-mouth survival. Already they are at breaking point, and now they are anxiously wondering how to move relatives beyond the desperate and untenable humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh. Their desperation and urgency has a direct effect on their bargaining power. With their resources so low, and with so many risks involved, they are knowingly and unknowingly entering into relationships of exploitation and extortion with the brokers.

Again.

Bangladesh cannot absorb 800,000 Rohingya into its ailing local economy on the borderlands near Myanmar, or support them indefinitely. The responsibility needs to be one that is shared internationally – with the acknowledgement that home might not be a safe option for a long time to come. A joined-up effort to secure durable solutions for Rohingya outside Myanmar (the new-comers and the old) – from both concerned Western and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries is vital. Efforts to provide Rohingya with safe passage to countries in which they can build their lives should accompany the pledges of aid. This will avert the secondary humanitarian crisis as Rohingya once again take to the seas and smuggling routes on which so many lives have already been lost.

One of the conditions for returning Rohingya to Myanmar will likely be access to (future) nationality or citizenship. Sometimes documentation has been conflated with citizenship. The international community has fallen, time and time again, for Myanmar’s false promises relating to documenting Rohingya with a view towards citizenship. Long ago the documentation processes themselves became sites of persecution for Rohingya. When Rohingya statelessness is understood within the context of wider genocidal processes7, it is clear that Rohingya don’t just need documents to return to Myanmar, they need their group identity to be recognised there as well. And for toxic, primordial notions of race to be dismantled from the top down. History is on repeat and the cycle of persecution, displacement, forced repatriation and exploitation needs to be broken before the Myanmar military ends the cycle their way.

  1. See Para’s 19 & 20 of UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), CCPR General Comment No. 27: Article 12 (Freedom of Movement), 2 November 1999, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.9. ↩︎
  2. See Nyi Nyi Kyaw (2017) ‘Unpacking the presumed statelessness of Rohingyas’,

    Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 15(3), 269-286.

  3. Robert M. Hayden describes how nationality laws in the former-Yugoslavia, that were based on primordial notions of race, were used as “bureaucratic ethnic cleansing” and were a precursor for mass expulsions and mass killings. See Hayden (2002), ‘Imagined communities and real victims: self-determination and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia’, American Ethnologist, 23(4), 783-801. ↩︎
  4. See Nick Cheesman (2017) ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 47(3), 461-483. ↩︎
  5. Alexander Laban Hinton, Alexander Laban(, 2002, ), ‘Genocide: An Anthropological Reader’, p10. ↩︎
  6. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “Genocide” and tirelessly campaigned for the inclusion of genocide in international criminal law, used the term “denationalisation” to describe the production of statelessness as part of the genocidal process. Lemkin understood genocide to involve “destruction of the national pattern” or social engineering by the oppressors to destroy a group both culturally and physically. ↩︎
  7. For a historic account of these processes, see Zarni and Cowley (2014), ‘The slow-burning genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya’, Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, 23(3). ↩︎
About the author

Natalie Brinham is a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London researching statelessness. She has worked for many years in NGOs in the UK and Southeast Asia on forced migration, trafficking and statelessness in both frontline service provision roles and research and advocacy roles. She holds an MA from UCL Institute of Education and a BA from SOAS.


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