Four years on, the Rohingya crisis turns into a protracted refugee situation slowly but surely


This month marks the fourth anniversary of Myanmar’s brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that forcibly displaced around a million Rohingya Muslims into Bangladeshi refugee camps. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is not new, with massive waves of displacement being recorded in 1978, 1992 and most recently 2017.

In 2004, the UNHCR defined a “protracted refugee situation” as a situation where 25,000 or more refugees had been in existence for five or more years with no immediate prospect of a durable solution. Some 30,000 Rohingya Muslims from earlier influxes were living in Bangladesh though 90% of those were either born in Bangladesh (nearly 63%) or have been there for 20 years or more (34-36%). These refugees were covered under the UNHCR’s protracted refugee situation measure as the international community failed to negotiate successful repatriation for them.

The scale and magnitude of the displacement since August 25, 2017, where more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar fled to Bangladesh, is unprecedented and everything seems to suggest that it is far from over. The current Rohingya plight has not reached the 5-year stipulation to qualify as a “protracted refugee situation”, but the prospects of the Rohingya situation would indicate a protracted nature. As evidenced all over the world from the increasing number of protracted refugee situations, repatriation is often more myth than reality, after almost four years, and with nearly a million refugees crowded into the settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, there is little sign of repatriation on the horizon, rendering the protracted nature of the Rohingya situation as a fait accompli.

There was a belief in both the Rohingya and International Community that with the restoration of democracy in Myanmar and the rise to power of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, that the plight of the Rohingya would be addressed. Instead, in 2017 following actions, internationally described as genocidal, by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military forces, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh. Following pressure from the international community Aung San Suu Kyi appeared at the International Court of Justice in the Hague on 10 December 2019 only to defend her government against accusations of genocide, during which campaigners for the Rohingya claimed that the leader uses the “nationalist card here to whip up support, but also convincing the military that she’s with them.” Nobel Peace Laureate Suu Kyi’s rise to power has ultimately made little or no meaningful impact on the ground, leaving the Rohingya to continue seeking outside aid.

Though Bangladesh pushed hard to begin the repatriation, Myanmar sought more time for logistical arrangements. The last meeting to address repatriation, met in January 2020, soon after that Coronavirus lockdown halted any further move on the question of Rohingya repatriation. Bangladesh was always hopeful of beginning repatriation as historically Myanmar took back most of their nationals who fled in 1978 and 1992. The internal politics of Myanmar however took a significant turn at the beginning of 2021. On February 1st, 2021, the Tatmadaw, announced that it had taken control of the country, declaring a year-long state of emergency.

The coup d’état returned the country to full military rule again. In the weeks since the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted civilian leader, has faced charges in a secret trial. With her detention, Aung San Suu Kyi’s dizzying journey on the world stage – from democracy icon to leader of an elected government and then, astonishingly, a defender of the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims – returned to her familiar place, with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, facing criminal charges.

Following the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, declared that within a year, elections will be organised to correct the fraudulent results that caused the coup in the first place. Six months after seizing power, the military government officially annulled the results of the elections held in November 2020, General Min Aung Hlaing declared himself prime minister and announced that he will lead the country until elections are to be held in two years. General Min Aung Hlaing justified the postponed elections by claiming “we must create conditions to hold a free and fair multiparty general election”. This would place Myanmar under the control of the military for two and a half years rather than one year as initially stipulated. 

Though in the days following the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing, now Myanmar’s de facto ruler, vowed that Myanmar would move forward and promised to “protect” the Rohingya. This promise is unlikely to convince the Rohingya to accept repatriation, coming from the originators of their persecution, the Myanmar security forces, especially as this army junta killed more than 800 anti-coup protesters, drawing global outrage. As the situation in Myanmar worsens, it is becoming harder for the outside world to remain optimistic about the Rohingyas’ plight, Matthew Smith, the co-founder of the human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights, recently said “…it is difficult to see a way for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar safely. If there was even a shred of hope for a safe, voluntary, and dignified return, it’s completely gone now”.

As it stands, it seems inevitable that the Rohingya crisis will become a protracted refugee crisis as there is little hope for any significant shift in the Rohingyas’ circumstances within the next year.  Many refugees fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape violent ethnic cleansing and potentially saved the lives of themselves and their loved ones. Now living in refugee camps in cramped conditions, with limited freedom of movement, access to education or health service or any form of agency, the Rohingya are now dependent on the goodwill of their host nation and the will of the international community. Though they are no longer living in constant fear, the protracted nature of their plight diminishes their quality of life and prospects for the future. 

*The author would like to thank his PhD student Roberta Dumitriu at the University of Dundee, for contributing her valuable input for preparing this article.

Dr.Abdullah Yusuf
Dr.Abdullah Yusuf
Lecturer in Politics and International Relations School of Social Sciences