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Should Rohingya Return to Myanmar?

A discriminatory citizenship structure and pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar suggest that if the Rohingya return home they are likely to face violence and persecution once again.

Since August, over 600,000 Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have fled their homes to escape persecution. These refugees have been forced to take shelter in makeshift settlement camps in Bangladesh, where disease and malnutrition have contributed to a pervasive gap in human services. In recent weeks, as a cold front has set in around the camps, there has been increasing concern over children freezing.

As a result, it should come as a reprieve that Bangladesh and Myanmar have signed a tentative agreement to send the Rohingya back to their home in the Rakhine State. While the details are still in flux, the understanding appears to be based off a framework that resolved a similar Rohingya refugee crisis in 1993. Among other things, this means that Rohingya who can prove that they possessed identification documents prior to the crisis can return home.

The issues surrounding this proposal are numerous, not least of which is the lack of clarity on where the Rohingya would even reside – most of their villages were decimated in the violence. The underlying challenge, however, is how the repatriated Rohingya will overcome historical barriers upon their return; Myanmar’s government has denied the Rohingya citizenship and, consequently, access to basic rights.

Proponents of the agreement suggest that if the Rohingya return with documentation, they may soon receive legitimate citizenship. However, even if citizenship is included as a condition to the Rohingya’s return, it is unlikely to serve as a solution to this multidimensional crisis. An anti-Rohingya sentiment is deeply embedded in the fabric of Myanmar’s society.

Throughout the country, the Rohingya are characterised as dangerous intruders, intent on proliferating radical propaganda across the nation.

Citizenship is unlikely to ease this predisposition, partially because legal issues compound the social stigma – despite holding citizenship, there are countless cases of ethnic groups that are denied access to justice and basic services. With this in mind, it is a real possibility that as the humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh ends, another one will soon reappear in Myanmar.

A conditional citizenship