Rohingya Relocation and Repatriation: Bangladesh is in the Paradox of Buridan’s Donkey

18. Feb 2022

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Image DFID-UK Department for International Development

By Krishna Kumar Saha, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration, Comilla University, Bangladesh.

We seem to be living in the future, in a world that looks nothing like we expected. Apart from COVID, a major issue requiring our attention as a global society is the plight of the more than 85 million refugees displaced around the world today. Many of these refugees are—out of desperation—resorting to suicidal paths, such as getting on a boat and trying to cross borders for a better life (Adams, 2021). Needless to say,  not everyone who takes these routes reaches their destination; many die along the way (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

It has already been more than four years since more than seven million Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh for refuge to escape from violence and abuse by the majority Buddhist population and security forces of Myanmar (Beech, 2021). At the last count, more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees are living in Bangladesh (Reid, 2021). Most of them live in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. These camps are vulnerable to many kinds of natural and human-induced disasters (Molla, 2022). There have been several fire incidents in those camps in which many lives were lost (Bdnews24, 2022). Now Bangladesh government is in a difficult situation, or as we are calling it, the ‘Paradox of Buridan’s Donkey.’ The government is unable to repatriate the refugees because of the lack of cooperation from the counterpart Myanmar government. On the other hand, due to the criticism from civil society, NGOs, and the international community, the government is facing severe challenges in relocating them from the overcrowded and vulnerable refugee camps to other sites of Bangladesh.

In addition, the crime in the camps area is increasing day by day, with countless instances of violence and abuse (UNB, 2021a). In addition, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) group members are killing Rohingyas who have raised their voices against ARSA’s ideology and activities (Beech, 2021). ARSA is an Islamic ideology-based separatist organization that wants an independent state for Rohingya Muslims. In a devastating recent instance of this violence, Mohibullah, a high-profile figure for the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, lost his life and is suspected of having been shot by the ARSA members (DW Reporter, 2021). However, the evidence and proof are yet to be found. Since then, there have been no significant leaders who stood up for the rights of the Rohingya people as refugees in their repatriation with safety, security, and citizenship rights in Myanmar.

Furthermore, there was a big demonstration against the Myanmar government in Bangladesh and a massive gathering of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to mark the first two years of exile (BBC Reporter, 2019). There was no intel to the Bangladesh government about this planned protest. This is a threat to the sovereignty of the national government because, without any permission, the Rohingya refugees have successfully demonstrated in public. And since then, the Bangladesh government has put a ban on any kind of public meetings for the Rohingya population. Due to the insecurity and uncertainty, the government of Bangladesh began to relocate Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an island off the coast of Bangladesh, in the final months of 2021. In doing so, they ignored the resistance from development partners and Rohingyas themselves (Islam and Siddika, 2021).

There has been repeated resistance from both the international community and Rohingya refugees because of the unlivable conditions in the Bhasan Char. The critics have claimed that the island is low-lying silt and prone to flood and cyclone, far from the mainland, lack regular and easy transportation, and some call it a floating island (DW Reporter, 2021; Islam and Siddika, 2021; UNB, 2021b). On the other hand, the Bangladeshi government points out the disadvantages and insecurity in the current overcrowded and sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar and wants to ensure all the conditions for living on the island. Recently the UN has agreed to work with the Bangladesh government in Bhasan Char (Islam and Siddika, 2021; UNB, 2021b). Many international organizations are providing support to the government institutions and NGOs working for Rohingya Refugees on that island in the hopes that conditions will soon improve.

Nevertheless, these are all partial and temporary solutions to a bigger problem. Since the refugee influx in 2017, Bangladesh’s government has attempted several times to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, with each attempt ultimately failing. Then the COVID pandemic hit the world, and everything stagnated, including Rohingyas’ repatriation. After the pandemic-related lull, China brokered talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar and discussed a fresh attempt at repatriation. Then, however, the military took over the power of Myanmar, and all hope of repatriation dissolved (Rahman, 2022).

After all these delays, in a recent meeting between two Bangladeshi Government officials and Burmese junta representatives, the parties discussed repatriating the Rohingya refugees who are taking shelter in refugee camps in Bangladesh (ibid). Myanmar will verify the refugees’ past residency as the prerequisite for returning to their home country. However, Bangladeshi government officials have been dismayed by the slow pace of verification by their Myanmar counterparts (Al Jazeera, 2022). Bangladesh is looking forward to greater cooperation from the Myanmar government to complete the verification process.

However, it is important to have a conducive environment for repatriation as the last attempts have fallen through because the Myanmar government failed to earn the confidence of the refugees. The refugees ask for citizenship in Myanmar, safe living conditions, and voting rights (Bdnews24, 2022). Assuming the government of Myanmar can meet the refugees’ conditions, this may build confidence among the Rohingyas and would facilitate swifter reptation. Without a sustainable and conducive repatriation environment, in which citizenship, safety, and the right to work in Myanmar are guaranteed, the new attempts will also fail.

Yet, experts and ex-diplomates who have been observing the Rohingya repatriation process since the beginning have expressed their doubts about the recent attempts at repatriation. They observe that the officials of Myanmar have refused to comply with the repatriation process in the past and will likely continue to do so (Akhter et al., 2020; Molla, 2022). According to these experts, such repatriation attempts are just stalling by the Myanmar government. They have no intention, motivation, or pressure to comply with the demands of Rohingya refugees and the Bangladeshi government.

Therefore, Bangladesh and the international community need to continue putting pressure on the Myanmar government. If the government of Bangladesh, together with substantial pressure from international organizations and neighboring governments, can build enough pressure that the Myanmar government cannot refuse, only then will the Myanmar junta government agree to take back the Rohingya refugees (Siddiquee, 2020). Likewise, meetings with Myanmar government representatives, international community pressure, and refugees’ advocacy need to continue to keep the momentum going (Rahman, 2022).

Along with the repatriation talks, local and international actors need to continue providing safety and security to the Rohingya refugees who are staying in those vulnerable, densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar (Islam and Siddika, 2021). Without the relocation of the refugees to a new location, it will not be possible to provide safety and security in the overcrowded camps. This is why the government of Bangladesh should continue to relocate the refugees to the newly established shelters for Rohingya refugees. Furthermore, the government should ensure the safety and security of refugees in the camps on the island of Bhasan Char (Islam and Siddika, 2021).

Given all these circumstances, countries including Japan, the USA, the UK, India, and others support the relocation of Rohingya refugees to facilities in the Bhasan Char (ibid). Above all, agencies like the UN, IOM, and different national NGOs are working and advocating for the safe movement of the refugees to the new camps (UNB, 2021b). In addition, some Rohingya refugees want to be where they are or be moved to other sites of Bangladesh. Some want to go back to Myanmar if there is a substantial change and improvement of their citizenship status and if they can create pressure and raise their voice to a significant level so that the international community can take their matter seriously (DW Reporter, 2021). Along with the support from international actors for new camps, these countries and organizations should keep pressure on the Myanmar Junta government so that they cannot refuse the repatriation of Rohingya refugees under the conditions for return outlined and demanded by the refugees themselves.


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Krishna Kumar Saha can be reached at, [email protected]

Picture: DFID-UK Department for International Development,