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23 June, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 23 June, 2019 12:05:54 AM

How the absence of citizenship rights acts as a barrier to successful repatriation

Christopher M. Faulkner

The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, have faced a series of violent offensives by the Burmese government since the late 1970s. The most recent crackdown came on the heels of anti-government attacks carried out in August 2017 on Burmese security outpost by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The military campaign in response to this attack included the systematic forced movement, rape, and killing of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

While the discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government is not unfamiliar to those aware of the historically strained relationship, the mass exodus of nearly 750,000 since August 2017 has created a tragedy the United Nations designated the fastest growing refugee crisis in 2018. Emphasising the severity of the situation, the UN’s 400 plus page report following an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission in October 2018 recommended that senior officials of the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, be charged with genocide. As of April 2019, over 900,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Bangladesh. Their treatment and most recent tribulations in Bangladesh, including abysmal living conditions in Cox’s Bazar, and their uncertain future, underscore the humanitarian costs facing refugees.
Systemic violence against the Muslim minority group can be traced back to 1978’s Operation: Dragon King, a campaign to register citizens in which government forces evicted Rohingya, asserting they violated the state’s nationality laws. Despite the historical consensus of the Rohingya’s arrival in Rakhine State in the fifteenth century, Myanmar does not recognize the group as indigenous. Their statelessness was codified by the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law that distinguished three categories of citizenship across 135 official ethnic groups, excluding the Rohingya from each. Recent appeals for citizenship reform have fallen on deaf ears.
The events of August 2017 draw parallels to the Operation Pyi Thaya or “Clean and Beautiful Nation” in 1991, a clearance campaign which saw the mass movement of 250,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. Subsequently, the largest repatriation of Rohingya occurred between 1992 and 1997 when over 200,000 were returned to Burma, many involuntary, with approval of both governments and, later, the UN. According to Médecins Sans Frontieres, some 63 percent of the Rohingya refugees disapproved of return and 65 percent were unaware of their right to refuse repatriation. Unsurprisingly, the forced refugee repatriation of the 1990s was unsuccessful in ensuring refugee protections and ultimately, in generating lasting stability.
While the most recent repatriation efforts appear to have stalled, the spectre of an unprecedented refoulement of the Rohingya back to Myanmar is concerning given the primary condition for lasting repatriation has not been met: a promise of citizenship by Myanmar. Instances of ethnic persecution and subsequent mass exoduses are not new, yet the Rohingya crisis is unique due to the group’s status as stateless.
Statelessness, in principle, means that neither Myanmar, nor any other state, recognises the Rohingya as citizens. Functionally, this means their ‘right to have rights’ is jeopardised as stateless persons are often denied access to health care, education, employment opportunities, and political participation. In the context of the Rohingya crisis, we argue, addressing the issue of statelessness is essential. Ultimately, failure to do so is likely to severely jeopardise not only the refugee repatriation process, but also any prospects for future stability in the Rakhine State. While there is a rich literature on refugee repatriations, scant attention has been paid to the return of stateless refugees. Reconciling statelessness and repatriation is inherently difficult as the right to return to one’s country traditionally depends on that person’s designation as a citizen
To highlight the importance of citizenship rights in repatriation efforts of the Rohingya it’s useful to take into account the voluntary return of over 280,000 Angolan refugees in the early 2000s following the country’s 27-year long civil war.

The writer specialises in Security Studies




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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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