More than two years since the expulsion of the majority of the Rohingya population from Myanmar, Rohingya are still not being adequately informed or engaged on issues of vital importance to their lives and futures. The government of Myanmar continues to deny citizenship and representation to the few hundred thousand Rohingya still living in Myanmar. The Rohingya there face ongoing, severe human rights abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to livelihoods and education. Bangladesh deserves great credit for providing refuge to 1 million Rohingya. With the support of UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and donor countries, it has led a massive humanitarian response that has saved many lives. Bangladesh also refuses to recognize Rohingya as refugees however and has been increasing restrictions on that population. Moreover, Rohingya voices have been virtually absent from high-level discussions about their possible repatriation to Myanmar or relocation within Bangladesh, as well as decisions about matters of everyday camp life.
Key actors—including the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar and UN agencies—all have made official statements that the ideal solution to the Rohingya displacement crisis is their repatriation to Myanmar. However, none of the three repatriation agreements that have been signed between these actors formally include the Rohingya or even mention the name Rohingya. Engagement with the Rohingya community has been limited to poorly coordinated, last-minute information campaigns rather than genuine consultations, and have left its people largely uninformed and unprepared for any possible return. The dangers of this approach were clear in two repatriation exercises that led to widespread angst among Rohingya refugees. The first attempt, in particular, resulted in panic, spikes in mental health consultations, and even reported suicide attempts. The second, although better managed to avoid the same levels of panic, still led to extensive anxiety and uncertainty.
Similarly, plans by the government of Bangladesh to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal, have created confusion and fear among them. Bangladeshi authorities in the camps have collected and added Rohingya names to relocation lists, reportedly without those individuals’ consent. Rumors abound about what those who do volunteer to relocate might receive for relocating. UN officials and NGO representatives have warned about serious unanswered questions over safety guarantees and the logistical capacity to host refugees on the island. Plans for assessment by a UN technical team have been delayed. Under current circumstances, no transfers should take place. An independent assessment and outreach to the Rohingya community will be essential to ensure that any relocations are truly safe and voluntary.