Helping the Rohingya return home

James Lynch is the Southeast Asia regional representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency.

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — On my first visit to this immense refugee settlement on Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, I crossed a bamboo bridge that refugees had built. It spanned a stream and connected an old settlement, where Rohingya refugees from previous waves of forced displacement have lived for decades, to the new one, now a sprawling city where more than 600,000 have taken shelter.

The bridge is a vital artery for the refugees here. It allows them to carry jerrycans, blankets and solar lamps from a distribution point in the old settlement to their families in the much larger new settlement. The stream becomes a river when it rains; when the refugees first arrived, the only way across was to swim until they were able to suspend several stalks of bamboo just above water level. By the time I first walked across, the bridge was three feet wide with supporting beams and tresses. Today, there are three bridges, all built by refugees, bearing what can sometimes seem like as much foot traffic as Times Square during rush hour.

Ten months ago, violent attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state precipitated a torrent of destruction that has driven over 720,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar is where most of them ended up.

This Wednesday is World Refugee Day, when we remember the plight of refugees like the Rohingya but also celebrate their resolve and resourcefulness. In another life, the Rohingya refugees I have met in Bangladesh would be certified engineers. They are already builders. Give them the raw materials and the tools, and they can build anything.

We need to help them build bridges.

In Bangladesh, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been working with the government to gird refugees for the rainy season, which is putting many at risk of disastrous flooding and landslides. We have helped 15,000 refugees relocate to safer areas, but we need to also continue supporting the refugees who are trenching, tying and hammering day and night to buttress the foundations of their existing shelters. We need to help them reinforce the bridges that connect them to their families and sustenance and, where the floods don’t recede, we will need to build new ones.

We also need to build bridges between refugees and the communities that are so generously hosting them. Having more than 720,000 new neighbors arrive in the space of 10 months is no easy process. But the international community can help make it work for everyone by investing in the host communities and developing what has long been an impoverished area of Bangladesh.

The bridge between the refugees in Bangladesh and their home communities in Myanmar is the most critical one to rebuild. The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed that any repatriation should be voluntary, safe and dignified. Myanmar has committed to implementing recommendations for an inclusive and prosperous future in Rakhine, the state the refugees fled, made by an advisory commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. And earlier this month, UNHCR and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) signed an agreement to help Myanmar eventually create the conditions “conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees” to their homes.

This is just a start. Current conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive to a safe and dignified return. The Rohingya who remain in Rakhine are still seeking an end to discrimination and a pathway to citizenship. Most have been unable to resume normal lives. In Rakhine’s central townships, about 130,000 internally displaced persons, mainly Rohingya, are soon entering their seventh year of confined encampment.

Under these prevailing conditions, refugees in Bangladesh are understandably afraid to return to Myanmar. For them, for now, that is a bridge too far. But there are ways we can narrow the gap.

Under the agreement UNHCR and UNDP signed with Myanmar, our agencies will be granted access — which we have not had since August 2017 — to refugees’ places of origin and areas of potential return so that we can begin assessing the needs on the ground and ensuring that the rights of returnees will be respected. This will in turn give refugees in Bangladesh an independent source of information on which they can base any decisions to return. At the same time, we plan to start work on recovery and resilience-building projects in Rakhine in line with the advisory commission recommendations to establish access — for all communities — to citizenship, freedom of movement, health care, education and livelihoods.

In addition to fears for their safety, many refugees have told us they are skeptical of Myanmar’s citizenship verification process. Allowing the internally displaced in central Rakhine to return to their places of origin with freedom of movement and streamlined access to citizenship would show refugees in Bangladesh that the government of Myanmar is committed to their reintegration and a lasting solution to this crisis. It would also allow Muslims and Buddhists to be neighbors and partners again, as they were in the past. For how will these communities ever reconcile if they are forbidden from interacting with one another?

Last month, while looking from one of the many hilltops of Kutupalong over the expanse of what is now the world’s largest refugee settlement, I recalled crossing that bamboo bridge late last year, in the early days of this crisis, and meeting a young humanitarian worker. He had worked for a non-governmental organization in Rakhine before fleeing the violence in August. He told me he felt safe in Bangladesh but was afraid of returning to Myanmar. He had no way forward and no hope of turning back.

That is an awful and dangerous situation for a young person to be in, as so many Rohingya refugees are. More than half are children. It is an actual matter of life and death that we offer some hope to the next generation — the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children living in refugee camps in Bangladesh and in internally displaced camps in Myanmar. It is on their behalf that we must advance solutions to this crisis, not only on World Refugee Day, but every day until they are achieved, until a bridge is built for them to cross from the many dangers they still face to the peaceful and secure future they deserve.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.