2 years on, Rohingya-led organizations struggle to join the conversation on repatriation

Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by: REUTERS / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Earlier this week, Bangladesh government’s efforts to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar failed, yet again. Resistance came from within the camps at Cox’s Bazar — a statement accompanied by signatures and thumbprints was issued by the refugees, refusing to leave without a guarantee of rights with a demand that reflects the Rohingya’s struggle to be heard and to be included in the talks.

“There will be no repatriation without talking to us because going home is about our rights, so we must be included,” Rohingya refugee Bodirul Islam stated in the letter, issued by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, an organization based in the camps.

Eventually, none of the 3,450 people on the list — which was presented to UNHCR by the government of Bangladesh after being cleared by the government of Myanmar — agreed to go back, leading to a deadlock. The efforts to resist and protest repatriation, now and during past efforts by Bangladesh in November 2018, were organized by a network of grassroots groups.

Two years since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, these community-led groups are an example of the growing organization, capacity, and impact that local leadership is starting to have in the camps.

“We are not foreigners, we are indigenous.”

— Khin Maung, co-founder, Rohingya Youth Association

Lack of consultation

The need — and newfound ability — to make their own voices heard is what gave rise to community-led organizations.

“Nobody is going to implement or listen to our voice … Everybody is saying they are working for us, but nobody [has] come to consult with us,” said Mohib Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights.

“So many INGOs I [speak with] don’t not talk with us, they do [things] themselves. They [choose] the way which [creates] more profit for them. For the moment we can say they are doing their job, but they are not doing it for us.”

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The rise of community service organizations comes at a time when many representatives of the Rohingya community, like Mohib Ullah, feel they haven’t been fully consulted about their needs — especially for political matters such as repatriation and citizenship in Myanmar.

“There is a clear message from Rohingya community — the NVC [national verification card] is not for us,” said Khin Maung, co-founder of the Rohingya Youth Association, referring to the second-class identity documents Myanmar has offered to Rohingya who repatriate.

“We are not foreigners, we are indigenous. We refuse it — it is not for us and we will not return to Burma unless we receive full citizenship. For this, our message is clear.”

The lack of consultation has also led to growing animosity and distrust of international nongovernment and aid organizations.

The issue was echoed to Devex by several other Rohingya activists within the camps and acknowledged by aid workers in Cox’s Bazar who wished to remain anonymous since they were not authorized to speak on the topic.

However, the rise of community groups is good news as they are able to mobilize people in the camps, said John Quinly III, a human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.

“One of the glimmers of hope that I see in the camps is that there is this access to assembly and freedom of expression in ways that there wasn’t in Myanmar,” Quinley said, referencing repressive policies that stifle freedom of expression for the Rohingya in Myanmar.

“The Rohingya refugees know their situation and they have creative solutions on how to solve those problems,” Quinley said. “So UNHCR and big INGOs should be consulting and talking to the Rohingya people,” he added.

Community organizations for all

Two years of living in the camps has given rise to groups that are able to advocate for themselves at a grassroots level, with each group focusing on various aspects of a common goal: justice and equality for the Rohingya people.

“Our organization was established because we need to work together and create unity between our people,” said Khin Maung, citing the more than 400,000 children in the camps. “Youth are central for community and can help change society — they’re the foundation of every country. So we created the organization to work together to give youth a platform to promote equality and fight discrimination.”

While the organization is in its early stages, it plans to expand its programs in an effort to “encourage the participating of Rohingya youth in community development,” the group said in a statement.

Shanti Mohila, a group of more than 400 Rohingya women who originally came together to share their experiences, is another organization that is advocating for Rohingya rights.

“The name Shanti Mohila means peace women,” said Hamida Khatun, a member of the organization, in her speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council, “and we want peace in Myanmar.”

The women at Shanti Mohila also pursued the case of human rights violations all the way to the International Criminal Court, and their submission was considered when The Hague later made a ruling that it has full jurisdiction to investigate Myanmar's alleged crimes against the Rohingya, including killings and forced deportations.“We know the Myanmar government will not cooperate and will not investigate on its own. But we know the ICC has the power to bring the perpetrators to the court and punish them, and we are happy they have taken this step,” Shanti Mohila member Khalunisa wrote last year.

Support from diaspora

International Rohingya advocacy organizations, who for years have played a central role in advocating for Rohingya rights, say they are ready to assist camp-based Rohingya organizations in their work.

But with the emergence of the camp CSOs, international Rohingya advocacy groups have now recognized that camp based CSO activity differs from the work that they do.

“Because we have the privilege to be away from harm and [we’re] not so restricted in freedom and movement, and because a lot of us have citizenship elsewhere we can lobby, fly around, and do things [that] people in camps can’t do,” said Yasmin Ullah, president of the Canada-based Rohingya Human Rights Network. “There should be a distinct role of diaspora as well as people in camps”

Rohingya Human Rights Network, as well as other international Rohingya advocacy organizations, have been engaged in assistance programs such as gathering witness testimonies, footage, images, and documents from survivors from those in the camps that can be used as advocacy tools.

But Yasmin Ullah says she believes in the autonomy of the Rohingya organizations working within the camps.

“They are the ones who can create the change and invoke the kind of development that needs to take place.”

Update, Aug 23, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify that the government of Bangladesh presented to UNHCR a list of 3,450 people to repatriate, as cleared by the government of Myanmar. The government of Bangladesh requested UNHCR help inform refugees that their names were on the list and to verify if they were willing or not to return.

About the author

  • Victoria Milko

    Victoria Milko is a Myanmar-based freelance multimedia journalist who reports on human rights and civil unrest in South and Southeast Asia.