Guest Column

The Fortunate Failure of 'Voluntary Repatriation' For Rohingya Refugees

By Tony Waters 11 February 2019

In 2017 and 2018, between 600,000 and 800,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar following attacks and clearance operations targeting their villages and coordinated by the Myanmar military. The result is the world’s largest refugee camp, Kutupalong, situated in a low-lying corner of Cox’s Bazar District in Bangladesh. The camp is there because the Bangladesh government saw it as a humanitarian way to deal with the refugee influx and preferable to a military operation. The international community, led by the UNHCR, was invited to receive the refugees and coordinate the establishment of a large camp in the low-lying district.

The initial success of this operation is not in doubt. The Bangladesh government, UNHCR and international partners successfully housed hundreds of thousands — perhaps as many as 1 million — refugees in a manner that recognized their needs for protection in a situation that could otherwise lead to a war involving Myanmar, Bangladesh, and other countries. Mobilizing the international donor community and establishing such refugee camps quickly is indeed what the UNHCR and the international refugee regime is good at, and it is why they are such a positive force in the world for blunting the consequences of acute conflict. In recent decades the UNHCR has done this in the former Yugoslavia, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

But the next step is a bigger problem. What do you do after the refugees arrive and settle into “temporary” refugee camp life? Traditionally the UNHCR has said that there are three “durable solutions” to a refugee crisis like this. They are voluntary repatriation, local resettlement with the permission of the host government, and third-country resettlement with the permission of another country. Governments inevitably say “not me” to the second and third options, which means it falls on the refugees to “voluntarily” go home and on the sending country to receive them irrespective of local conditions. This was the solution proposed by the UNHCR in the months following the Rohingya flight — and as a result, negotiations immediately opened between Bangladesh, Myanmar, the UNHCR and the largely Western donors. Left out of the equation, as usual, were the refugees themselves, who, when asked, consistently indicated that the “solution” would involve not just return to Myanmar but also second and third country resettlement.

Fortunately, in the case of the Rohingya, UNHCR programs to return them to Rakhine State were unsuccessful. Despite much publicity, persuasion, and even threats to cut rations, the Rohingya stayed put in the temporary refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. In the meantime, Rakhine itself was pushed into yet another round of military action, this time between the Arakan Army, which is seeking independence, and the Myanmar military. The Rohingya refugees are now watching the new strife from Cox’s Bazar, rather than contemplating fleeing back to Bangladesh from the refugee resettlement camps the UNHCR tried to establish for them in Rakhine. In other words, the failure of the UNHCR’s policy means that yet another complication has been avoided.  Paradoxically, the failure of the official “voluntary repatriation” programs should perhaps be counted as an unintended success by the international refugee relief regime. Yet again, the spread of conflict was prevented by the presence of safe-haven refugee camps, albeit inadvertently.

Which brings me to the de facto “fourth solution” to refugee crises, which the UNHCR and international community routinely avoid citing. This solution is to permit “temporary” camps become permanent homes for refugees. This de facto solution has been used repeatedly around the world. The best known example is the Gaza Strip in Palestine, which is really just a 70-year-old refugee camp, as are Palestinian settlements in Lebanon, the West Bank and elsewhere. In Africa, Kenya is home to refugee camps for Somali and South Sudanese, and in Tanzania there are decades-old camps for Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians.

The creeping permanence of such camps are of course not in the interests of anyone — not refugees, home countries, second countries or third countries. But time after time they emerge, often with similar consequences. In such contexts, grievance festers and radicalization occurs.  High birth rates lead refugee camp populations to double within 15 to 20 years, as they did — and continue to do — for some Palestinian populations. Grievance, despair, rapid growth and radicalization are a predictable consequence of letting refugee camp situations fester.

And this is independent of the problems created by premature repatriation plans implemented by the UNHCR and Western donors in recent decades. The most brutal repatriation was the forced expulsion of 2 million Rwandan refugees by Zaire, Tanzania and Uganda in 1996 at the behest of international donors from the West. The result? The immediate deaths of 300,000 to 400,000 refugees in the Congolese forests fleeing westward, and wars triggered in central Africa that killed 4-6 million people by 2004 and continue today. In other words, the world community would have been better served if the camps in Tanzania and Zaire had been left in place and policies leading to multiple peaceful solutions tried. But they weren’t, and as a result the financial and humanitarian costs of a poorly managed refugee situation continue to be paid with bills for war, violence and refugees.

The odd thing is that there are indeed good examples of the resolution to refugee crises involving multiple solutions, undertaken more or less voluntarily by refugees. The European refugee crisis that began after World War II was resolved by the late 1950s or so. Crises in Southeast Asia that began after the fall of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975 were by and large resolved by 1995. In both cases, refugees returned to their home countries, resettled in countries of first asylum legally and illegally, or were resettled in third countries. Bangladesh itself was of course born in the context of massive refugee movement, the first in 1947-1948 with the partition of British India, and the second in 1971-1972 with the Bangladeshi Revolution. These refugee movements were not resolved in any one fashion. They were resolved in the longer run by local countries and international donors with local resettlement, second and third country resettlement, and of course sometimes, tragically, with violent death. What each crisis has in common is that there are no longer refugee camps and the survivors and their descendants have integrated into the places where they landed.

What this means is that the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are probably right. The future for many, if not most, of them is not in Rakhine State. Rather, it is in the burgeoning cities of South and Southeast Asia, and for some in the West. Certainly some may well make their way back to Rakhine or, just as likely, cities like Yangon and Mandalay where there are growing industrial sectors, a solution that will please donors who are aware that, after all, it was Myanmar’s policies on residency and citizenship that led to the crisis in the first place.

But it is also foolish to presume that the best solution is a return to the pre-expulsion status quo. This is neither practical nor desirable. A successful resolution of the Cox’s Bazar refugee crisis will involve statesmanship and generosity on the part of many countries both in the region and further afield. This is the only real “durable solution” available. Failure to pursue such durable solutions carries with it the risk of further radicalization of the Rohingya refugee population, instability, and future war.

Tony Waters is director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Peace at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and a member of the faculty of the PhD program in peace building. He is the author of books and articles about refugees around the world, including Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan.