Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response Contents

5Repatriation of refugees to Burma

30.In addition to supplying the immediate humanitarian need, an even greater challenge lies ahead of securing a future for the Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh. The international community, and particularly Bangladesh, is insisting upon their right to return to their home. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has recently committed her government to the repatriation of those who have crossed the border, and their “resettlement and rehabilitation”.95 Bangladesh and Burma have held several bilateral meetings and on 22 November announced that they had signed an agreement to begin returning refugees within weeks.96 However, the terms of the agreement are as yet unclear and have already been the subject of concern.97 In principle, repatriation is a welcome measure that honours refugees’ right to return, but our evidence suggests that there are several obstacles to a safe and voluntary repatriation process into Burma, including:

a)The need to abide by the principle of non-refoulement (no forced return to torture or ill-treatment);98

b)homes and villages no longer exist, or may not be able to be claimed without papers;

c)a need to ensure that refugees are not returned into Burmese Government camps, which were referred to variously by our witnesses as “internment camps”99 or “concentration camps”;100

d)a lack of verification and identity papers among the stateless population;

e)The need for monitoring and humanitarian access to the state;

f)Continued and even increased local hostility toward Rohingya;

g)agreement to allow security, possibly provided by UN or ASEAN authorities.

Several NGOs expressed serious concern that such issues had been ignored in the past in the rush to repatriate, with terrible consequences for the Rohingya, many of whom remain today in the camps into which they were repatriated.101

31.The UK Government should state clearly to both Bangladesh and Burma that it will not support a repatriation deal that does not include comprehensive safeguards and does not have the confidence of relevant UN agencies. The Government should lobby for humanitarian agencies to be represented at bilateral talks, with a view to ensuring they are given access to Rakhine province to assist with and monitor the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, and for any agreement on repatriation to include references to the implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission Report. The Government should be ready to intervene strongly with Bangladesh if repatriation is begun before humanitarian access is allowed in Rakhine and other minimum guarantees are provided by the Burmese government.

Risk of permanent camps

32.Dr Champa Patel raised with us the need to confront the possibility of a failure to repatriate refugees, stating: “This may be unpalatable, but if we are to learn from the history of displaced populations that lacked citizenship, there must be some thinking done about what happens if that population becomes semi-permanent, if not permanent, in Bangladesh.” She cited the example of Palestinian refugees.102 We heard from others who agreed that full repatriation was unlikely,103 and one who suggested that the Rohingya should be settled elsewhere.104 The Minister himself has referred to the safe return of Rohingya as possibly “a forlorn hope”,105 but he was reluctant to consider anything other than repatriation, telling us:

The worst case of all, in my view, would be this: if we do our best to work with the Bangladeshi authorities to build ongoing, long-standing, sustainable settlements on the Bangladesh side of the border, in a sense the [Burmese] military Government will have got their own way.106

33.The prospect of long-term camps is concerning not only for humanitarian but also security reasons. We received several warnings about the risk of radicalisation in refugee camps. At present, there appear to be minimal links so far between the Rohingya cause and an international extremist threat, and our witnesses did not consider the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to be well-connected to international terrorist groups.107 However, worrying signs were already emerging that the Rohingya cause was becoming internationalised, and amongst some communities there was a risk that it could be seen as an attack on Islam. We were warned that the cause may become a lightning rod for Islamist extremist movements, and they might not wait for an invitation from ARSA.108 The Minister agreed that the camps were “a ticking time bomb,” in terms of their potential for radicalisation.109

34.The safe and voluntary repatriation of refugees is an ideal. However, we believe it is unlikely that all Rohingya refugees will wish to return following their traumatic experiences, and there are serious risks if any return happens without proper safeguards, including some element of independent international monitoring and oversight. The Government’s reluctance to envisage long-term displacement is understandable, but it is mistaken about its views as to the worst-case scenario. The prospect of long-term, well-resourced, and sustainable camps is far better than the prospect of temporary housing that is permanently extended, in squalid, poverty-stricken camps which offer no hope for the future to their inhabitants, and which make them vulnerable to radicalisation. The UK must now start work with its UN allies to agree a plan for long-term displaced people offering them safety, education, and employment prospects, on the understanding that the international community will be working towards the safe return of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Burma. The understandable fear of camps becoming permanent must not lead to under-resourcing of the humanitarian effort in the short to medium term.

95 The Republic of the Union of Myanmar: State Counsellor Office, Aid, Rehabilitation, Resettlement to be Speeded up for N-Rakhine, 12 October 2017

96 See HC Deb 28 November 2017 col 84WH. See also Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (BUR0017)

97UN questions Myanmar’s Rohingya repatriation pledge”, Financial Times, 30 November 2017; “Myanmar, Bangladesh ink Rohingya return deal amid concern over army’s role”, Reuters, 23 November 2017. See also: “Repatriation, Statelessness and Refugee Status: Three Crucial Issues in the Unfolding Rohingya Crisis” Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, 10 October 2017

98 Article 33(1) of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of refugees provides that:
“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

99 Fortify Rights (BUR0026) para 20;

100 Q65 [Dr Lee Jones]. . See also Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) paras 38-39

101 Q65; Fortify Rights (BUR0026) para 20; International State Crime Initiative School of Law Queen Mary University of London (BUR0010) paras 18–20; Burma Campaign UK (BUR0022) para 27; Middlesex University (Prof Brad Blitz), (BUR0021) paras 20-22

102 Q65 [Dr Champa Patel]

103 See, for example: Mr Justin Wintle (BUR0011) ; Dr Lee Jones (BUR0027); HC Deb 28 November col 73WH

104 Mr Justin Wintle (BUR0011) para 4

105 HC Deb, 17 October 2017, col 808

106 Q87

107 Q46. However, see also: Correspondence from the Ambassador of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, dated 6 October 2017, Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (BUR0006)

108 Qq 46–47; Q89. See also: Dr Eglantine Staunton (BUR0015) para 3.3; “Rohingya plight in Bangladesh raises fears of radicalisation”, Financial Times, 6 December 2017

109 Q123

8 December 2017