The Burmese/Myanmar government has claimed to begin the repatriation process of Rohingya refugees that have fled into Bangladesh. The government says that next week, over 1,258 refugees will return — 750 of which are actually Rohingya, and 508 who are Hindus.
The Burmese government aims to repatriate approximately 1,200 back into their borders, but it was around 1,200 children under the age of five that the same government killed in one month, less than a year ago. This includes bashing infants against trees, burning families in their homes — most of the deaths of these children were from shooting. From the Kutupalong camp on the border of Bangladesh, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth expressed his concerns:
Some 58% of the refugees are children, many of whom are still traumatized by their experiences of violence … It is critical that their rights and needs in terms of protection and aid are front and centre in any agreement to return families to Myanmar. Return of refugees to Myanmar must be voluntary, safe and dignified … In just the last few days we have heard reports of fires and shooting in villages across the border. Until the safety and wellbeing of any child returning to Myanmar can be guaranteed, talk of repatriation is premature.”
The U.N. has described the violence against the Rohingya as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”
Even if the violence stops (which it hasn’t), sources on the ground relay high levels of skepticism to SOFREP about any repatriation efforts, due to an inherent mistrust in the government. If the repatriation efforts turn out to be honest attempts at bringing the Rohingya back into the fold and allowing them a seat at the Burmese table as they once had, this is an important step.
However, their skepticism also lies in some problems with the technicalities of the repatriation efforts themselves. By definition, the 1982 Citizenship Law typically denies the Rohingya citizenship in the first place — if the repatriation efforts are contingent on Rohingya proving their citizenship upon crossing the border, that could be difficult.
To contrast: there is a lot of controversy in the United States regarding immigration, and who should be allowed citizenship. We argue about how difficult it should be to acquire a U.S. Passport, but if someone was born in the U.S., their parents were born in the U.S., and their grandparents worked in American government — no one would typically argue their right to American citizenship.
Many in Burma consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants, but they immigrated just after WWII, not any time recently. After their immigration, they were recognized as one of the many ethnic minorities throughout Burma, like the Karen and the Shan. The Rohingya even held seats at Burmese parliament. However, in 1962, when the military regime took hold, the disdain toward the Rohingya began to grow, and they have subsequently lost any footing in the country they once held. Since then, they have been in constant conflict with the Burmese government, who consistently tries to drive them out of the country or wipe them out altogether (be it by violence or destruction of culture and language).
So despite the fact that the Rohingya had a place in Burma, they have since been rejected and expected to turn back to Bangladesh. Bangladesh doesn’t want them, as it has also been so long that they also don’t consider them locals or natives.
The 1982 Citizenship Law solidified the fact that the majority of the Rohingya have been denied citizenship. Some may prove to be exceptions, especially if they have mixed blood, but many will be out of luck. For example, they must know an approved language well, and Rohingya does not count, despite the fact that they have been speaking it there for around 70 years. But that is a small example — Human Rights Watch says this:
The stipulations of the Burma Citizenship Law governing the right to one of the three types of Burmese citizenship effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the eighth century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races.”
Again, to contrast with the United States, having a “national race” seems almost ridiculous. However, this is a reality for many in other countries, Burma included.
In the past, proof of citizenship had been a requirement for any repatriation efforts and the world watches to see if this will be a requirement again. The dangers with letting a mass of undocumented people return to a country are enormous, but it is a difficult situation when that same government was responsible for driving them that way in the first place.
And of course, all of that is assuming that when they were running for their lives from the Burmese military, they remembered to take their papers and proof of citizenship with them. Historically speaking, many of these people just run with what’s on their person at the time.
Because of these problems, many believe the repatriation efforts simply to be a method to quell the international outcry against their actions. However, if they prove to be a legitimate effort to rebuild, it could mean the first step in a peace that has not existed in the country since before WWII.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.