While changing a few words on a refugee’s ID card may seem inconsequential, for the 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar a year ago, it is essential.
In negotiating with Myanmar for the repatriation of the Rohingya, Bangladesh recently agreed to change the wording on their ID cards from “Myanmar nationals” to “displaced persons from Rakhine State.”
This change signals that Myanmar doesn’t intend to honor the citizenship rights of the Rohingya, nor acknowledge the causes of their displacement – security force operations that included murder, widespread rape, mass arson, and pillage. It also suggests Bangladesh’s willingness to dismiss the Rohingya’s rights as refugees as repatriation plans move forward.
Although the vast majority of the Rohingya are officially stateless, many have long and deep roots in Myanmar. Despite living in miserable, dangerous conditions in grossly overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, the refugees I visited there were unwilling to criticize their hosts because, as they frequently said to me, “Bangladesh is not my country.” I heard this phrase so often that I made it the title of our report on their plight. Their country, they said, was Myanmar, and to their homes and homeland they wanted to return, they said.
But their desire to return is not unconditional. As one young refugee said to me: “If Myanmar gives us citizenship and recognizes our Rohingya identity we will return. We also want the return of our land and property. We want security and justice and to be treated equally with the other religions. I would like to go back, but I need the return of my home, property, and citizenship rights. The international community should also maintain peace in our homeland.”
These are not unreasonable conditions, but they won’t be easily met. Bangladesh and concerned governments should press Myanmar to meet them, with citizenship a priority. Their IDs should not only say they are “Myanmar nationals” but also that they are “refugees” – with all the rights refugees are due. As refugees and as people with genuine links to Myanmar, the Rohingya have rights that need to be respected, not only the right to return voluntarily, but also the right not to be returned to grave risk.