As the global public observes World Refugee Day, it is more important than ever to honor the strength and courage of refugees throughout the world, including refugees from Myanmar , who have for decades faced persecution, violence and fear in the face of ongoing violent attacks by the Myanmar Army. Despite the torture, rape, sexual violence, razing of their homes, villages and many other heinous human rights violations committed against them leading to their displacement, their voices remain strong and must be recognized and respected as their safe, dignified and sustainable return rests on their full involvement and consultation in processes that will determine their future. This is even more relevant in Myanmar as this year’s World Refugee Day is in the shadow of the continuing Rohingya crisis, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Myanmar Government continue to make decisions and stipulate terms of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees without their involvement. A similar situation can be observed along the Thailand-Myanmar border where discussions of refugee return from the nine camps continue without meaningful consultation and participation of refugees.
Rohingya refugees who have fled what has now been termed by the UN as “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity” and possibly “genocide” face further threats. Over the past week, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh has experiencedheavy rains due to the monsoon season, with 31,000 of the camp’s 1 million refugees at risk of flooding and landslides. Manuel Pereira, the International Organization for Migration’s Emergency Coordinator in Cox’s Bazar said, “We are racing to save lives, but we urgently need more funding to maintain and expand key humanitarian support during these rains. Without this, our operations, which are currently only 22 percent funded, will run out of money by the end of this month”. Along the Thailand-Myanmar border, Mae La refugee camp, the largest refugee camp along this border – host to approximately 34,000 refugees – also flooded, inundating over 100 homes and educational structures, materials and boarding houses as well as health clinics. This is devastating to those who have already suffered from years of funding and aid cuts, subsiding on what little they have left in their communities.
Amidst the continued humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the UNHCR, UNDP and the Myanmar Government have agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) concerning the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Rohingya refugees and civil society organizations are deeply concerned the MoU does not address the root causes of the crisis, particularly the issue of citizenship and ethnic identity, which has contributed to human rights abuses. In addition to this, the UNHCR, UNDP and the Myanmar Government have not disclosed the contents of the MoU or involved Rohingya groups in the repatriation planning, calling into question the sustainability, safety and security of any return. Rohingya refugees and Rohingya civil society groups should be consulted as they are best placed to ensure that their concerns and conditions for rehabilitation, reintegration and rebuilding of their destroyed homes and villages are addressed and genuinely reflected, including in the MoU. Crucially, there has not been a sufficient undertaking or guarantee for their safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return. The Myanmar Government has also not taken concrete actions to warrant any assurances that persecution will not continue. A joint statement by Rohingya groups rightly pointed out that “Repatriation is a life and death question for the whole of the Rohingya people.” A credible investigation needs to be conducted, in which full access to Rakhine State is granted and those who have committed atrocities and crimes are held accountable. Until such issues have been addressed, it will be extremely challenging to ensure a safe and dignified return of Rohingya.
On the southeastern border of Myanmar, approximately 100,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. For years, funding and aid has been steadily cut along the border, causing aid shortages in the camps, which has led to high levels of malnutrition and social problems including substance abuse and high suicide rates. Between 2012-2016 funding for the camps has dropped by 50%, with many refugees struggling to survive on meager rations. Many refugees and cross border organizations have been pushed out of the border due to the constant reduction in funding and aid, while the peace process and conditions for return on the ground inside the country continue to deteriorate.
In recent months the Myanmar Army, in contravention of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), has continued their offensiveagainst the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), waging armed conflict, while conducting strategic operations, such as building military roads. As a result of this fighting, over 2,400 more villagers have become internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Karen State, and this has created increased fear among many refugees in Thailand regarding their return as they continue to monitor the worrying political climate.
Displacement has continued to rise between January 2017 and May 2018, with 60,000 civilians in 24 different townships in Kachin and Shan States displaced due to conflict. A group of civil society organizations from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has urged the Myanmar Government to end all conflict in Kachin State and to secure the safety of civilians. IDPs in Kachin State face further risks due to aid restrictions, as the Myanmar Army threatens to take legal action against members of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) if they continue to provide aid for IDPs in northern Kachin State. This has forced the KBC to halt their important humanitarian aid work in Kachin Independence Army (KIA) controlled areas, leaving the already vulnerable population without aid. These actions are the latest tactics by the Myanmar Army who have also actively blocked delivery from other sources of humanitarian aid. The KBC is one of the main groups providing aid to KIA-controlled areas, and preventing it from delivering this aid threatens the health and lives of thousands of IDPs. The Myanmar Army has also been orderingIDPs to leave camps in government-controlled areas, and blocking IDPs from leaving the forest around their villages to seek safety in larger towns. Despite the growing number of IDPs, looming large is the plan by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to close IDP camps in Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and Karen States. These actions by the Myanmar Army and the Government are in clear breach of international humanitarian law including the Geneva Conventions.
World Refugee Day is a chance to reflect upon the current state of refugees globally. As such, the international community must pressure the Myanmar Government to develop a concrete plan, in consultation with Rohingya and other ethnic groups, to ensure all preconditions and best practices are in place for voluntary, dignified and safe return of refugees to Myanmar. Refugees and IDPs are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in Myanmar and any return should include restitution for the abuses and human rights violations that they have suffered. Thus, their voices and concerns must be heard at all stages of planning and implementation of return to ensure their safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.