Myanmar and Bangladesh announced a tentative deal Thursday to, at least symbolically, address the Rohingya refugee crisis by sending the more than 620,000 Muslim ethnic minority refugees who have fled to Bangladesh back to their home in neighboring Myanmar. The details of the accord are still sketchy, procedural disagreements on how to implement the plan remain, and not everyone is convinced simply sending the Rohingya back to where they were being slaughtered is the appropriate course of action.
The agreement tentatively calls for the repatriation of displaced Rohingya to Rakhine State in Myanmar to begin within the next couple of months. The Bangladeshi government, already strapped for resources, has felt the strain of hundreds of thousands of refugees and has called for international agencies to be involved in the process of sending the Rohingya home. Myanmar has insisted that any return of the ethnic minority be negotiated bilaterally, presumably because less international involvement would mean less pressure on the country throughout the process. International condemnation of the Myanmar government—and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi—has increased dramatically as the crisis has intensified.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on Wednesday, ratcheted up the pressure on the government in Naypyidaw by calling Myanmar’s treatment of the Muslim minority Rohingya “ethnic cleansing.” “After careful and thorough analysis of the facts,” Tillerson said in a statement, “it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine State constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.” Refugees have described horrifying acts of state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya, from the execution of civilians to gang rape and the mass destruction of entire villages. Tillerson said the U.S. would begin the process of imposing “targeted sanctions” on the regime for its actions.
Despite the agreement there are still ominous signs and a worrying precedent for the Rohingya looking to return home. From the New York Times:
Earlier, the Myanmar authorities said they would, in principle, allow for the return of displaced Rohingya if they could prove that they had lived in Myanmar before fleeing across the border over the past three months… The Myanmar authorities have in recent weeks balked at the possibility of the Rohingya, whom they consider to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, returning to their native villages. Instead, Myanmar’s government has spoken obliquely of camps where they might be sequestered. Around 120,000 Rohingya already live in such camps in the central part of Rakhine after a wave of violence in 2012 forced them from their homes. In late October, officials in Myanmar ordered the harvesting of fields that had been deserted in the Rohingya exodus. The authorities in Myanmar have said they will confiscate all land that they consider “abandoned.”
Those conditions have made many Rohingya cautious or unwilling to return to Myanmar. “Amnesty International said it doubted there could be safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar ‘while a system of apartheid remains’ and added that it ‘hoped those who do not want to go home are not forced to do so,’” the BBC reports.