A YEAR since their rapid departure, the estimated 655,000 Rohingyan refugees must have felt encouraged by the United Nations’ latest push to persuade Myanmar to create the right conditions for their return from Bangladesh.
But urgency must be discouraged. This will be no simple exchange of people across a common border. The living conditions and needs of the refugees must come first, and so we must prepare for months more — at least — of crisis conditions in the camps at Cox’s Bazar.
Combine this with the fears of further conflict, and the reality that homes and the old infrastructure no longer exist, and there is a convincing argument to let the Rohingya stay where they are, for now.
IT IS monsoon season in the Bay of Bengal — four cyclones have hit the region in the past five years, killing hundreds of people — and bamboo and thin tarpaulin shelters need securing against the inevitable bad weather. And this must happen now against the backdrop of high-level repatriation talks.
Many are living in places that cannot withstand a cyclone. Apart from the impact from the most destructive weather system on earth, the high levels of rainfall will cause earth to crumble, which can easily open up sewage systems and leave the population vulnerable to a cholera outbreak.
In August 2017, countless stories of fleeing Rohingya began to emerge (News, 15 September 2017). The refugees left amid killings and the burning of their villages. Stories reached aid agencies that people had had to leave behind the dead and dying, in a bid to escape themselves. Lost and crying children unsure what had happened to their parents were ushered to safety and adopted by the community. Women gave birth during their long walk to safety. Their children survived against all the odds, thanks to the skill and commitment of the few available medics.
To do this in reverse, with haste, would be the nightmare of any logistician, albeit that the UNHCR has much experience in this area.
True, the response has moved from an emergency to a sustaining phase, but the system is fragile, ever dependent on funding and support for the humanitarian agencies on the ground which help through the provision of shelter, clean water, nutritious food, and medical services.
Medair, a Christian NGO, is one of those agencies. It has been supporting Rohingyan refugees through the distribution of shelter and hygiene kits, besides looking after pregnant and lactating women, and under-fives. New-borns and their mothers, the sick, the elderly, and the dying, would need special attention if they are to return with “the safety and dignity” required by UN Secretary General, António Guterres.
We might gauge how eager to be repatriated the Rohingya are themselves by one of their key concerns. They believe that they will not be returned to their former villages in Rakhine state, but to another camp just the other side of the border. Myanmar has already built pre-fabricated huts to house the few dozen Rohingyas who have returned.
Any high-level talks must include provision for a protracted crisis, and its complications — particularly its impact on family life. Some Rwandan Tutsis who fled their country for Angola after the 1994 genocide returned only 22 years later; they left their established jobs, and took with them grandchildren born in the host country. In contrast, displaced Iraqis are slowly returning to villages in the Nineveh Plains that they left only a few years ago, when they were overrun by Islamic State militants. The Iraqis might have been given funding to help them rebuild their homes and their lives, but, during their time away, their families have fractured as the younger members have left the country for opportunities elsewhere.
SO, PITY the Rohingya for their dilemma of when and if to go. But, for their sake, it should not be a decision rushed. Their repatriation probably just isn’t going to happen any time soon.
Meanwhile, while their living conditions are as fragile as the sandy earth their tarpaulin homes are built on, the funding for Medair and other agencies must not dry up as the Rohingya begin to consider whether life back in Myanmar is a possibility for them in the future.
Neil Casey is the director of Medair UK.