Guest Column

Insistence on Voluntary Rohingya Repatriation to Myanmar Lacks ‘Moral Imagination’

By Tony Waters 29 August 2019

The International Donors are meeting frequently to discuss the 1 million Rohingya refugees sitting in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar.  The strange assertion that “the refugees will  go home to Rakhine soon voluntarily because we have a plan” is again being recycled; apparently there is even a draft plan to send back 500,000 in the next two years.  Added to the insistence on voluntary repatriation are proposals that the Annan Report be adopted, and there be an international criminal investigation of Myanmar’s army.  How any one of these three recommendations will lead to a lasting resolution for any Rohingya refugees is beyond me.  At the risk of pointing out the obvious, few refugees are going to voluntarily repatriate to Rakhine, the Annan report was issued before the 2017 flight to address the earlier 2012 exodus, and whether or not there are war crimes trials in the distant future is irrelevant to refugees stuck in refugee camps now.  Repeating such a tired formula shows the lack of imagination on the part of advocates like UK Commissioner to Bangladesh Robert Chatterton Dickson and the UNHCR, who cannot imagine a solution that requires anyone except powerless refugees to take risks.

The rhetoric of the international community about the Rohingya is familiar to those who study refugee crises.  A group flees a country because they are persecuted. A second country receives them initially with generosity. But soon concerns about security, financial costs and “burden sharing” are raised.  The international refugee relief regime then establishes “temporary” refugee camps to address humanitarian concerns highlighted by CNN and the international media.  And then a few months later, refugees who are deathly afraid are told everything has changed, and they should go “voluntarily” to the place they fled.  For the Rohingya this is burned out villages, and unbuilt IDP camps controlled by the government they fled in the first place.

This happened recently in Cox’s Bazaar in 2017-2018.  In fact it is also what happened in Cox’s Bazaar in 1978, 1991-1992 and 2012-2013, which is perhaps why Rohingya refugees today are wary of voluntary repatriation schemes—such schemes are dangerous for refugees!  Refugees also know that repatriation schemes were catastrophic for refugees in Congo in 1994-1996, Palestinians in 1948, Europeans after 1945 and continue to be for Central Americans and Syrians today.

The peace scholar John Paul Lederach writes about such situations.  He points out that lasting peace is likely to emerge only if there is a “moral imagination.”  A lack of moral imagination is what Robert Chatterton Dickson from the UK High Commission, international NGOs, Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR have as they continue to recycle old “solutions.”  They do not have the imagination to make moral demands on their own publics.  And so, refugees are urged to risk “voluntary” repatriation, and home countries like Myanmar are pressured to comply.

What might a moral imagination look like in the case of the Rohingya?  It might mean Chatterton’s UK takes in 50,000 Rohingya refugees across two years as an example to ASEAN nations, China and other Western countries. This is difficult in Brexit-obsessed Britain, but no more so than in other countries challenged to follow Britain’s lead. And in fact these countries have decades of successful refugee resettlement programs for Indochinese, Europeans, Latin Americans, Africans and others.  Certainly, it is easier to imagine this type of burden-sharing leading to a permanent solution, than it is for Myanmar’s NLD to successfully repatriate over 1 million Rohingya (or even 500,000) into a politically volatile Rakhine State where smaller schemes failed in the recent past.

The problem is that the UNHCR simplistically frames “durable solutions” as a “choice” between voluntary repatriation, permanent second country resettlement, and third country resettlement.  In fact, there are other scarier “likely solutions” to refugee crises which refugees fear more.  Among such “solutions” are new persecution, return flight and, in the case of the Rohingya, being displaced again by the inevitable typhoon.  But the biggest catastrophe refugees fear is the situation that occurred in 1996-1997 when Rwandan refugees were forcibly repatriated after about two years in Congo.  About 1 million were resettled in Rwanda, but some 300,000 turned eastward, most dying in the Congolese forest.  Hundreds of thousands also fled into cities of neighboring countries, surreptitiously resettling. If that was not bad enough, The First and Second Congo wars were triggered, in which 4-5 million “excess deaths” occurred between 1996-2004.  This is only the worst recent example. Today, premature repatriations are forced in Central America by the United States, and in the Mediterranean by the European Union. Refugees are the ones that pay the highest costs up front, not the international donors.

Still, most refugee situations are eventually resolved, albeit rarely in ways focusing solely on one of the three solutions, as the international refugee relief regime asserts.  Rare is resolution by the “repatriation only” formula, which is akin to “putting the toothpaste back in the tube.”  For example, in Europe after World War II it took about 14 years to clear 10 million or more people from refugee camps.  These refugees resettled in their home countries, other European countries, or third countries like the United States and Israel. There was first, second and third country resettlement.  The Indochinese refugee crisis was largely settled between 1978 and 1995 with a combination of repatriation (particularly of Cambodians, who only went after a peace agreement establishing the 1992-1993 UN mandate over Cambodia), surreptitious resettlement within Southeast Asia, and at least 1 million sent to Western countries, and China.  Most recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany imaginatively, and at great political risk, admitted about 1 million Middle Eastern refugees, mainly from Syria. Turkey, a country of second settlement, does better and is accommodating 2.7 million Syrians, 90 percent living outside camps. There are also about 3 million Venezuelan refugees today, of whom about 1 million are in Colombia. In other words, by world standards, the Rohingya situation is not particularly large, unusual or unmanageable. 50,000 Rohingya across two years for Chatterton’s UK sounds like a small number!

But sadly, little moral imagination is generated to address the Rohingya refugee crisis. The international community jumps quickly to the conclusion that “we’re tired”; as if Bangladesh and Myanmar—not to mention the refugees themselves—are not.  The result is that tired diplomacy is reflexive and the risks that are inherent to mass repatriation operations go unacknowledged.  The West, China, Bangladesh and other South Asian or ASEAN nations with billions of people could easily take in substantial proportions of the world’s refugees. And of course, Myanmar will take back a good proportion in the event of a durable peace, just like Cambodia did. In the meantime to Myanmar there will be only a few thousand here, and a few thousand there (or fewer) despite the grand ambitions of the international refugee relief regime.

What is needed first, though, is an acknowledgment by the UNHCR that the doctrine of “voluntary repatriation only” does not work. Resolution requires a moral imagination, rather than insisting on policies that have already failed repeatedly. Sure, perhaps Bangladesh and Myanmar can move 500,000 refugees back in the next two years.  But does anyone really believe that such a solution is durable?

Tony Waters is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai, and Professor of Sociology from California State University, Chico.  He is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), When Killing is a Crime (2007) and Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society (2015).