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Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work
Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work
Report 261 / Asia

Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State

The highly volatile situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State adds dangerously to the country’s political and religious tensions. Long-term, incremental solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole.

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Executive Summary

The situation in Rakhine State contains a toxic mixture of historical centre-periphery tensions, serious intercommunal and inter-religious conflict with minority Muslim communities, and extreme poverty and under-development. This led to major violence in 2012 and further sporadic outbreaks since then. The political temperature is high, and likely to increase as Myanmar moves closer to national elections at the end of 2015. It represents a significant threat to the overall success of the transition, and has severely damaged the reputation of the government when it most needs international support and investment. Any policy approach must start from the recognition that there will be no easy fixes or quick solutions. The problems faced by Rakhine State are rooted in decades of armed violence, authoritarian rule and state-society conflict. This crisis has affected the whole of the state and all communities within it. It requires a sustained and multi-pronged response, as well as critical humanitarian and protection interventions in the interim.

Failure to deal with the situation can have impacts for the whole country. As Myanmar is redefining itself as a more open society at peace with its minorities and embracing its diversity, introducing the seeds of a narrow and discriminatory nationalism could create huge problems for the future. Political solutions to the decades-long armed conflict, including the building of a federal nation, will be much more difficult.

The largest group in the state are the Rakhine, who are Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority, including the Rohingya – a designation rejected by the government and Rakhine. The Rakhine community as a whole has tended to be cast internationally as violent extremists – ignoring the diversity of opinions that exist, the fact that the Rakhine themselves are a long-oppressed minority, and rarely attempting to understand their perspective and concerns. This is counterproductive: it promotes a siege mentality on the part of the Rakhine, and obscures complex realities that must be understood if a sustainable way forward is to be found.

The grievances of the Rakhine are similar to those of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities – including longstanding discrimination by the state, a lack of political control over their own affairs, economic marginalisation, human rights abuses and restrictions on language and cultural expression. Decades of Rakhine anger have begun to morph. Since the transition to the new government, many Rakhine have increasingly felt that the most immediate and obvious threat that they face in rebuilding their communities and re-asserting their ethnic identity is one of demographics. There is a fear that they could soon become a minority in their own state – and, valid or not, there is no doubt that it is very strongly felt in Rakhine communities.

Muslim communities, in particular the Rohingya, have over the years been progressively marginalised from social and political life. Many have long been denied full citizenship, with significant consequences for their livelihoods and well-being. There are now efforts underway in the legislature to disenfranchise them, which could be incendiary. The Rohingya see this as their last remaining connection to politics and means of influence. Without this, it would be hard for them to avoid the conclusion that politics had failed them – which could prompt civil disobedience or even organised violence.

Current government initiatives to address the situation are centred on a pilot process to verify the citizenship of undocumented Muslims, and an “action plan” to deal with a broader set of political, security and development issues. Both contain deeply problematic elements. The refusal of the government and Rakhine community to accept the use of the term “Rohingya”, and the equally strong rejection of the term “Bengali” by the Rohingya, have created a deadlock. The verification process is going ahead without resolving this, and it may be boycotted by a majority of Rohingya.

The action plan envisages moving those who are granted citizenship to new settlements, rather than back to their original homes, potentially entrenching segregation. Those who are found to be non-citizens, or who do not cooperate with verification, may have to remain in camps until a solution can be found – which could be a very long time. An additional problem is that many Muslims may be given naturalised citizenship, which is more insecure and does not confer many of the rights of full citizenship.

Citizenship will not by itself automatically promote the rights of the Muslim population. This is made clear by the plight of the Kaman, who are full citizens by birth and a recognised indigenous group, but whose Islamic faith has meant that many are confined to displacement camps with no possibility to move freely or return to their land. Citizenship is thus necessary but not sufficient for improving rights. An end to discriminatory policies, including movement restrictions, and improved security and rule of law are also indispensable.

The government faces a major challenge in that the demands and expectations of the Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities may not be possible to reconcile. In such a context, it is essential to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are protected while also finding ways to ease Rakhine fears. Important too are efforts to combat extremism and hate speech. Only by doing so can the current climate of impunity for expressing intolerant views, and acting on them, be addressed. Ringleaders and perpetrators of violence must be brought swiftly to justice, which has rarely been the case. Doing so will help ensure not only that justice is done; it can also contribute to political stability and enhance the prospects for peaceful solutions.

Political solutions may not bear fruit quickly, but this must not lead to complacency. Solutions are critical for the future of Rakhine State and the country as a whole. Pre-empting extremist violence requires starting a credible process now that can demonstrate to the Rakhine and Muslim communities that political avenues exist. More broadly, unless Myanmar is successful in creating a new sense of national identity that embraces the country’s huge cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, peace and stability will remain elusive nationwide. In the meantime, it is essential for the international community to support the humanitarian and protection needs of vulnerable populations, which are likely to remain for years. It is also vital to address the chronic poverty and underdevelopment of all communities in the state, particularly through equitable and well-targeted village-level community development schemes.

Yangon/Brussels, 22 October 2014

Op-Ed / Asia

Why Europe’s Plan to Send Afghan Refugees Back Won’t Work

Originally published in POLITICO Europe

There is no quick fix to the refugee crisis; in fact, a short-sighted response raises difficult moral and practical questions.

As the global refugee crisis dominates the political agenda and Europe considers repatriation of refugees to supposedly conflict-free parts of Afghanistan, they would do well to consider people like the Basharpals.

The Basharpal family — father, 38, mother, 37, and their four children — originally fled Afghanistan in early 2015 and made it to Norway. Last month, they were deported back to Afghanistan. As they awaited local resettlement, a bomb went off some 100 meters from their hostel.

When I spoke to Mirwais Basharpal early in September, he and his family were once again preparing to embark on the dangerous and illegal trip to Europe.

Afghan refugees make up the second-largest group of migrants in Europe. In 2015, approximately 200,000 Afghans — less than 4 percent of the 6 million Afghan refugees worldwide — arrived in Europe.

Faced with the biggest influx of migrants since World War II, the EU has drafted a plan to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan. This is a politically driven response to a humanitarian crisis: an attempt to restrain rising xenophobia and the growth of right-wing political parties across the Continent. In May, the Austrian anti-immigration Freedom Party came close to winning the presidency. In Berlin state elections this past Sunday, Alternative for Germany (AfD) — a populist party that was formed only three years ago — cleared the 5 percent threshold to enter the state assembly.

The repatriation of asylum seekers and proposed resettlement programs by European countries raise difficult moral and practical questions in the face of continued insecurity, limited economic opportunities and the inability of the Afghan government to manage such high numbers of returnees.

Although the Afghan economy is struggling as international engagement winds down, what drives Afghans to leave their country is growing fear of conflict.

The global community is faced with two problems: finding a way to stem the tide of refugees and creating conditions for families like the Basharpals to return safely to their homes. In the case of Afghan refugees, the answer to both problems is the same: better security.

A survey last year by the Asia Foundation suggests that although the Afghan economy is struggling as international engagement winds down, what drives Afghans to leave their country is growing fear of conflict.

The security situation in Afghanistan remains extremely fluid. Provinces that were considered safe a few years ago are once again dangerous. The main highway heading north from Kabul, once one of the safest roads in the country, is now frequently attacked by the Taliban. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported a sharp increase in the number of civilian casualties in its annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. State Department, “travel to all areas of Afghanistan remains unsafe.” They also warned that “extremists associated with various Taliban networks, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP), and members of other armed opposition groups are active throughout the country.”

With the latest gains by the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that security is deteriorating and militants of various groups are gaining ground. Over 30 percent of all districts in the country (116 of 384) are under serious threat, while 91 districts face a “medium threat” from insurgent groups, according to a recent Independent Directorate of Local Governance report. “Repatriation efforts are unrealistic and against the UNHCR Internal Flight or Relocation Alternative guidelines as evidenced from recent attacks in Kabul,” said Abdul Ghafoor, a prominent refugee activist in Kabul.

Unemployment stands at around 35 percent with an additional 300,000 to 400,000 young people entering the job market annually. Afghanistan’s small private sector — a mere 10 to 12 percent of the country’s official GDP — has been hit hard since 2014 with the reduction of aid and international contracts, causing thousands of Afghans to lose their jobs.

Europe’s current short-term, political, domestically inspired response to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude is counterproductive.

There is strong evidence that repatriating Afghan refugees does not work. Returnees do not necessarily stay in Afghanistan once deported, as the Basharpal family shows. As Mirwais Basharpal put it, “There is no security. My children spent nine months in Norway and three years in Russia. They won’t be able to adjust here. I cannot return to my district in [the eastern province of] Nangarhar because of the Islamic State presence. I feel embarrassed to tell my relatives about our deportation.”

Refugee outflows on the scale of Afghanistan or Syria are the inevitable fallout of a failed state. There is no quick fix to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and Europe’s current short-term, political, domestically inspired response to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude is counterproductive.

The international community needs to recognize that alleviating suffering is no substitute to preventing it. Triage in Afghanistan involves maintaining sufficient military and financial support to prevent security and the economy deteriorating more rapidly, and giving families like the Basharpals confidence that they have a future in the country in which they were born.