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Can the EU do more to help Rohingya refugees?

August 25, 2022

Bangladesh has taken in over a million Rohingya after they were forced out of Myanmar. Now, the Bangladeshi government is pressuring the EU to help repatriate them.

A veiled woman holds a small child in Cox Bazar
Activists have decried living conditions in overcrowded refugee camps in BangladeshImage: Guven Yilmaz /AA/picture alliance

An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya refugees were taken in by neighboring Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military unleashed a violent crackdown in 2017, in what many describe as a genocide against the Muslim-majority group.

Bangladesh has raised the alarm over the cost incurred by the refugee load, and warned of a potential regional crisis. The pressure is also rising internationally, with the UN Human Rights Council passing a resolution in June that called for the rapid repatriation of Rohingya. 

Bangladesh's foreign minister, Abdul Momen, also reportedly pressed the issue earlier this month during a meeting with Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, on the sidelines of a summit in Cambodia.

Faint hope of returning

At the moment, however, the outlook is bleak for those who want to see Rohingyas return to Myanmar. International law states that refugees should not be sent back without a guarantee of safety and humanitarian treatment. According to Brussels, this cannot be guaranteed.

EU spokesperson Nabila Massarali told DW that the bloc "supports the voluntary, orderly, safe and dignified repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, as soon as feasible, if and when conditions allow."

But she added that the present situation in Myanmar was "not conducive to a return of refugees in the near future."

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military orchestrated a coup in February 2021, overthrowing the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government. That sparked an ongoing civil war, in which — according to conservative estimates — more than 2,000 civilians have been killed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, says the Thailand-based NGO Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.  

The military only controls limited areas of Myanmar. The rest lies under the authority of defense forces loyal to the National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government set up by ousted civilian politicians and activists, and the numerous ethnic armed organizations that have been in conflict with the national authorities for decades.

Fighting escalates in Rakhine

Making matters worse, there is growing violence in the southwestern Rakhine State — from where many of the Rohingya refugees originally fled and would likely return — between the Arakan Army, an ethnic rebel group, and the Myanmar military. At least 10 clashes have been recorded since July 18, Radio Free Asia reported this week. This does not bode well for the cease-fire agreement that both sides agreed to in 2020.

After 2017, over a million Rohingya refugees were taken in by BangladeshImage: DW

"The Arakan Army has worked assiduously in the past two years to build up their political autonomy, and that is completely unacceptable to the military regime," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC.

"Whether it is sheer arrogance or a legitimate concern that the Arakan Army might try to secede, the military is starting a war that it can ill afford, and one that will have wider strategic consequences in Myanmar."

Arakan Army softening its stance on Rohingya

Rohingya repatriation would require cooperation from the Arakan Army. The political wing of the ethnic militia group, known as the United League of Arakan, administrates much of Rakhine State, analysts say.

It has recently toned down its previous hostilities towards the Rohingya minority, which has been persecuted in Myanmar for decades. Tun Myat Naing, the Arakan Army chief, has expressed his willingness to integrate the Rohingya back into Rakhine society.

The militia has its own reasons for changing course, said Kristina Kironska, a Bratislava-based academic who specializes in Myanmar. In May, senior leaders of the Arakan Army held talks with the civilian shadow government, the NUG, for the first time since the coup. This sparked speculation over a possible alliance against the military junta ruling Myanmar.

The NUG says it will devolve power considerably, or even possibly introduce a federal system, if it manages to oust the junta. This could play out well for the Arakan Army, which has been demanding self-determination for Rakhine State for well over a decade. Analysts believe that the militia group is seeking international legitimacy, and assistance on the Rohingya crisis would earn it support from abroad.  

A chance for peace due to armed rebellion

"For the Rohingya, paradoxically, the coup and the emergence of the Arakan Army [in conflict with the military] have opened a one-in-a-century opportunity — an opportunity for peacebuilding in Rakhine," said Myanmar expert Kironska.

The big question, she added, is whether the EU and other foreign stakeholders are willing to engage with the Arakan Army in the process of repatriation.

EU spokesperson Massrali said Brussels "has so far [had] no contact with the Arakan Army in Myanmar on the process of repatriation of Rohingya and has no plan to establish relations to that end."

But a senior source in the EU appeared to contradict this statement when contacted by DW.

The bloc has had some dialogue with the Arakan Army "including on the Rohingya issue," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The EU isn't alone in being cagey about dealing with Myanmar's numerous ethnic militias. The US government's position on that the topic is "broken," said DC-based Abuza. "They completely need to change course and actively engage the [ethnic armed organizations], as they will have a seat at the table in a future Myanmar."

In turn, the EU source said the dialogue between the shadow government and the Arakan Army on an anti-junta coalition and possible repatriation would probably be more important than what the EU did.   

"The noises coming out of the NUG regarding the Rohingya citizenship and repatriation have been encouraging," they added.

NUG and the Rohingya genocide

The NUG is composed primarily of deposed politicians from the former NLD government, which has a tainted history of relations with the Rohingya minority. The genocide took place while the NLD was in government. Deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi — whose prison sentence for trumped-up corruption charges was extended to 18 years earlier this month  — was widely criticized by the international community for failing to condemn the military-led genocide.

But the NUG has since expressed its willingness to accept the Rohingya and repeal the 1982 Citizenship Act, which has been used to deny Rohingya citizenship.

With repatriation attempts unlikely in the near future, the EU is instead focusing on aid to help the refugees. In May, Brussels donated an additional €22 million ($22 million) in assistance, which will mainly go to Rohingya in Bangladesh.

"In the absence of the return of refugees to Myanmar, it is vital to ensure the delivery of essential support and services to the refugees," said Massrali.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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