Written by U Ne Oo on 1997-08-09
There are recent reports of continuing difficulties in solving Rohingya refugee problems. While the problem of existing refugees who had fled from Burma in 1991-92 are still unsolved, thtill unsolved, there is a fresh wave of refugees entering Bangladesh. The new influx in this year(1997), according to various reports, appears to be larger than that of last year. There remain particularly difficult problem of 'residual cases' from the initial exodus of 1991-92. Followings are the facts surrounding current situation of Rohingyas:
1. RESIDUAL CASES: There are 21,000 Rohingya refugees from the initial exodus of 1991-92 in two existing camps in Bangladesh. From the Burmese side, only 7500 of those camps residentse camps residents were given clearance for repatriation: meaning the rest of camp residents have not been considered by Burma's Immigration and Manpower Department(IMPD) as Burmese nationals.
2. NEW INFLUX OF REFUGEES: Since early June-1997, reports of a trickle of Rohingya refugees crossing Burma/Bangladesh border. The total number of refugees is believed to be 7,000 to 14,000 (Refugee groups claim 14,000). Officials charged the exodus is caused by discriminatory treatment to the Rohingyas by Burmese authorities and also by ths and also by the economic factors. The underlying reasons that propelled Rohingyas to fled to Bangladesh include excessive rice prices, forced labour , excessive taxation and discrimination in freedom of movement.
FINDING SOLUTION FOR RESIDUAL CASES
In approaching the problem of residual cases, we will need careful political considerations. Firstly, we must acknowledge that there are genuine residual cases: the Bangladeshi nationals who enter before 1991 and living in Arakan state for some times. Secon some times. Secondly, we must also aware that the inadequacies in the residency verification process by the Burmese IMPD.
When looking back to 1991-92 incidence, the entire Rohingya population was persecuted under the pretext of expelling the 'illegal immigrants'- who supposedly now to become the residual cases. A great deals of injustice was done by SLORC to the Rohingyas in these years. However, it is not an appropriate option to take back all those in the camps now as Burmese nationals: In politics, two wrong processes ong processes cannot always make one right solution, we must always find the truth. Now, it is the opportunity to establish the truth of the facts and clear once and for all of the (Burmese's) suspicions about those illegal immigrations.
There are apparent shortcomings in the Burmese IMPD's residency verification process for Rohingyas. From the Human Rights Watch/Asia report on last September, the IMPD's verification process is described as:
"... process required that lists of names of people names of people willing to repatriate, the names of the villages they left from and any other identifying information be sent to Burma's Immigration and Manpower Department (IMPD) for verification. After checking with the local village Law and Order Restoration Council (LORC, the local administration unit of the SLORC), where lists of all householders are maintained, the person or family is then accepted or rejected as a resident of Burma. In some cases, this verification procefication process can be very lengthy, especially if the person married while in Bangladesh, or if families had become separated while in the camps. The SLORC will accept marriages between Rohingyas. If a Rohingya has married a Bangladeshi woman, the woman (and any children they may have) are not permitted to enter Burma."
It is quite obvious that the IMPD's verification process is not impartial and is likely to be of a process done under a great deal of prejudices.
THE TRUTH ABOUT RESIDUAL CASES MUST BE ESTABLISHED
If we look into the possible mixture of stateless Rohingyas with some Bangladeshi nationals entering into Arakan state before 1991, there is a question of how far should we trace it back? One possibility can be the year 1962, when the Burmese Government withdrew citizenship of some Rohingyas. In 1978, there was an exodus of Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh and later the Burmese government reported to have accepted 200,000 Rohingyas (Whether thoas (Whether those returnees were given the Nationality Registration Cards(NRC) or Foreigner Registration Cards(FRC) is still unknown). From then onwards, there are various possibilities of unchecked labour migrations taking place within border community until 1991. It, however, will be incorrect to assume that all current residual cases (i.e.21,000-7500 =1,3500 cases) are only of above labour migration category. There can also be the possibility of persons being stateless in Burma, but could be a long-time residents to Arakan regioo Arakan region. Given the inadequacies of Burmese IMPD's verification process, a relatively large number of these residual cases may found to be long time residents of Arakan.
Possible solution to the residual cases can be reached by establishing the accurate details of such cases. In this regards, the non-governmental organizations can be most suitable to provide impartial assessment of such cases. After having a thorough investigation about those residual cases, those found to be Bangladeshi nationals should be separhould be separated from the rest of Burma-Rohingya refugees. Such residual cases, i.e the Bangladeshi nationals who born in Bangladesh and later migrated and residing in Arakan( &in refugee camps), can actually be much smaller in numbers. Nevertheless, this process will remove Burmese's suspicions about the existence of the 'illegal immigrants' in the refugee population. This will be a first step towards solving the citizenship problem for Rohingyas.
PROTECTION DILEMMA FOR UNHCR
A smaller exodus of thaller exodus of this kind had occurred last year (total number of about 5,000). At that time, some Non-governmental organizations has given humanitarian supports to those new arrivals. We, however, do not know how those 5,000 displaced Rohingyas have managed to survive in the end: whether have they gone back to Burma at the end of the year? or are they still continue to live at the Bangladesh/Burma border? The numbers of newly displaced Rohingyas appears to be larger than that of last year.
It is perceived that the Governmet the Government of Bangladesh, at some stage, wanted to close down the existing refugee camps. The Government of Bangladesh, however, does not wish to accept the residual cases for local resettlement. UNHCR, on the otherhand, appears to have some difficulties in dealing with new arrivals. Firstly, the UNHCR may have some logistical difficulty to deal with the combination of 'economically displaced' and those fleeing from 'persecutions', i.e. forced labour, limiting freedom of movement etc. Secondly, since the problem of initial em of initial exodus has not been fully solved, it will become rather messy situation if UNHCR were to handle the new arrivals.
Unfortunately, the UNHCR's protection mandate, as well as its capacity to carried out that mandate, for Rohingyas - both inside and outside of Burma - is quite limited. As is well known, the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to Status of Refugees does not include the protection for the people who found to be economically displaced (The poverty, including the life threatening poverty, is not being y, is not being considered as legitimate ground to give UNHCR's protection.). There are some grounds for protection in regards to forced labour, limiting freedom of movements etc. Then again, the UNHCR should be consistent in its consideration for expanding the protection mandate. For example, the mandate for UNHCR inside of Burma should also include the protection for forced labour in Burma (So far as I have gathered, the monitoring of UNHCR in Arakan do not include the forced labour, etc). In order to deal with the situation consiituation consistently, the UNHCR will have to consider the situation of forced labour in Burma as a whole. If the protection mandate for UNHCR is expanded to include forced labour, for example, it may become more easier to deal with the newly displaced Rohingyas.
The other factors that given rise to new exodus is the small number of UNHCR personnel and the absence of NGOs in Arakan state. The Memorandum of Understanding(MOU) that was signed in 1994 by UNHCR and Burmese authorities do not include the operations of NGOserations of NGOs, and only six on site monitoring personnel were allowed. We certainly have expressed concerns about those shortcomings to the UN General Assembly in last year. The main reason of the new exodus must be traced back to the inactivity of UNGA-1996, which failed to introduce those measures.
THE NON-GOVERNMENTAL INPUTS ARE ESSENTIAL
While we are making some headway to un-earth the human rights and political roots in Burma as the solution to these displacement problems, it must be realized thust be realized that we barely are scratching the surface of underlying economic roots of the displacements. The underlying socio-economic conditions in Arakan, which is the root cause for economic displacement of Rohingyas, must be investigated further. In this regards, the existence and operation of non-government organizations in Arakan can help in formulating lasting solution for Rohingyas. We know that most Rohingyas are landless and poor seasonal farm workers. Several considerations need to be made of how, in the long-term, to eong-term, to elevate the economic and social status of Rohingyas (and many Burmese farmers too). Such kind of development policy can only be formulated by the people who have observant eyes and have imaginative mind. In this case, the NGOs can certainly play crucial role in initiating efforts towards promoting such solution.
With best regards, U Ne Oo.