Rohingya Repatriation Plan Resumes as Turmoil Intensifies in Myanmar

The pilot project to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar resumed this week, with a delegation from Myanmar’s government visiting the sprawling refugee compound near the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar. The compound houses nearly one million Rohingya, many of whom fled “clearance operations” carried out by Myanmar’s military from 2016-to-2017 — acts labelled ethnic cleansing and genocide by multiple governments and human rights organizations. In 2021, the military overthrew the elected government that initiated the repatriation process in 2018.

Refugees face tragedy on all sides

The delegation’s visit comes as multiple crises render the refugees’ safety increasingly untenable. In January, the UN reported an “alarming” rise in Rohingya lost at sea, most of whom were fleeing Bangladesh or Myanmar by boat. On March 5, a massive fire at Cox’s Bazar left an estimated 15,000 refugees without shelter. The fire is believed to be an act of “sabotage,” carried out by gangs that have emerged from the insecurity that pervades the camps. And humanitarian organizations are facing a massive shortfall in funding for the Rohingya — roughly half of what is needed — due to donor fatigue.

Trading one risk for another

The repatriation project is restarting at a curious time. Myanmar has been engulfed in conflict since the 2021 coup, including in Rakhine State, the area to which the Rohingya would return. But the Bangladeshi government is nonetheless encouraging repatriation, with China mediating the process. Beijing is eager to stabilize western Myanmar, as it has significant interests in the transport and economic corridor there that connects China with the Bay of Bengal. Some observers are skeptical of the effort, however, asking how returning a vulnerable population to a violent region would help to stabilize the situation.