Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

What will the Rohingya face when they return home in a month?

The UN humanitarian corridor from Libya to Italy offers a glimmer of hope for migrants

A Rohingya Muslim child cries as she stands amid a crowd of elders to receive food being distributed near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh / AP
A Rohingya Muslim child cries as she stands amid a crowd of elders to receive food being distributed near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh / AP

Today marked exactly four months since the Rohingya first began fleeing to escape the brutality and violence inflicted on them by Myanmar’s military. With the date for their repatriation looming in less than one month’s time, the question remains: how safe will they be once they return? Knut Ostby, the UN’s most senior official in Myanmar, is not convinced and says more villages have been destroyed since the country signed a pact with Bangladesh in November to ensure their safe return. There are concerns about how many of the 650,000-plus Rohingya stranded in makeshift camps in Bangladesh will actually want to return, where they might live and what conditions they might face. Many have lost homes, possessions and family members. A recent Medecins sans Frontieres report put the death toll at 6,700, of whom one in 10 were children under five, who were beaten, burned to death or shot.

It begs a broader question, too, of what happens to mass communities once they are displaced by circumstances beyond their control. As we have seen with Syrians who left when war broke out, never expecting to still be dislocated seven years later, or Yemenis unable to return home as their country is laid siege by Houthi militias, the places they left behind are no longer recognisable, nor can they simply pick up where they left off. Some might resign themselves to starting new lives in their adoptive countries, where they might have a physical presence but their hearts and minds are elsewhere, for few people willingly leave behind everything and everyone they hold dear. Migrants displaced by war do not have the fortune of being the masters of their own destiny; their fate is often decided for them. In the case of the Rohingya, even getting the repatriation committee to acknowledge their community name was a battle – so what hope can there be that their human rights will be held sacrosanct?

Not all migrants face the same fate. There is a glimmer of hope after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Libya evacuated 162 women and children kept in detention centres in “inhumane” conditions to Europe, the first time such a move has been made. The group of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalians and Yemenis will all need medical help and counselling but have been welcomed with open arms into church shelters in Italy. Pope Francis, in his Christmas Eve address, likened the journeys of millions of migrants to that of the original nativity story. “We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away,” he said. We can only hope Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi takes a lesson from him to open a genuine humanitarian corridor.