For Rohingya, The Risks Of A Premature Return To Myanmar

The Rohingya people’s long history of forced displacement tells us of the dangers of repatriation from Bangladesh before their safety and rights can be guaranteed.

Traditional British baked beans
The future of the Rohingya is very uncertain
Caitlin Wake*


Last week, trucks waited idly at Bangladesh's border to transport Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. But not one of the refugees agreed to go. The impending return of the Rohingya is a disaster waiting to happen. There was no transparency in how refugees were chosen for return, and reports indicate that selected refugees have fled the camps or attempted suicide. Once the media spotlight fades, efforts to repatriate refugees are likely to be reinvigorated.

While discussions of the repatriation plan have been postponed until the new year, the situation must be closely monitored to ensure refugees are not forced or coerced into returning to Myanmar. The Rohingya people's long history of forced displacement tells us that premature return, while satisfying short-term political needs, will only backfire in the long term. The focus should be on: redoubling advocacy and monitoring efforts; obtaining legal status for the Rohingya; justice and accountability, as well as creating conditions for return in Myanmar; and pursuing durable solutions.

What Do We Know From Past Experience?

First, in both the 1970s and 1990s, Rohingya refugees were returned to Myanmar prematurely under less than voluntary conditions. These returns were clearly unsustainable: In 2017, some of the same Rohingya refugees were displaced for the third time to Bangladesh. There is no indication that if returns took place now the result would be any different.

As with the previous two instances of displacement, there is no guarantee of safety – a minimum requirement for the Rohingya to return home. Moreover, there has been no justice or accountability for the crimes that compelled the Rohingya to flee, nor has Myanmar taken steps toward resolving their statelessness. Without any meaningful signs of progress in Myanmar, returns will not be safe or dignified, as they should be under UNHCR's procedures for voluntary repatriation. Nor will they be sustainable.

Bangladesh denies them formal refugee status and Myanmar denies them citizenship.

Without these guarantees, the Rohingya may be subject to further violence. Without funds and freedom to rebuild their decimated villages, they won't be able to restart their lives. Without citizenship, they won't have the necessary rights and protections. The Rohingya will flee again – back to Bangladesh and further afield. Whether stakeholders support returns or not, they must be prepared for the potential fallout from it, including a sharp rise in humanitarian needs in Myanmar.

Second, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh do want to return, but only when they are convinced a safe environment is in place. Recent research suggests that most would consider returning to Myanmar, but only when certain conditions are met: namely safety, citizenship, freedom of movement and religion, and rights.

A critical component is lack of legal status: The stateless Rohingya will remain highly vulnerable while Bangladesh denies them formal refugee status and Myanmar denies them citizenship. Stakeholders must maintain pressure on Bangladesh and Myanmar to grant status and documentation for the Rohingya. But since these conditions are not in place, there is an urgent need to refocus on other solutions.

As with return, any solutions should be based on the views of the refugees themselves. Responses should involve developing inclusive, robust strategies for meaningfully including the perspectives of Rohingya refugees in decisions that affect their lives.


Rohingya only want to return to a place they are sure is safe — Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/ZUMA

Finally, the international community must relieve pressure on Bangladesh to change the status quo. Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of responsibility for the crisis, having hosted nearly one million refugees since 2017. Amid the international community's failure to hold Myanmar accountable for atrocities, realistic fears that this crisis will drag on for years, diplomatic pressure from China, and a fast-approaching election in Bangladesh, it is unsurprising that repatriation is on the table.

Yet it is clear that Bangladesh and Myanmar are not yet attempting large-scale repatriation: Based on what they've disclosed of their agreement, only 2,260 of the Rohingya, or less than 1%, were to be returned initially. Whether this is a half-hearted attempt to appease those pushing for repatriation, or to rattle donors into refocusing on accountability and long-term solutions, the Rohingya should not be forced to endure further distress and suffering amid such political maneuvering.

The members of the international community must refocus their efforts on longer-term support for Bangladesh, and hold Myanmar to account for crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

What Needs to Happen Next?

The international community appears to have learned some lessons from past experience. This time, UNHCR and several other organizations have said they do not believe conditions are in place and refuse to support any returns at this time.

Yet as the prospect of returns looms, it will be important for the United Nations, and international and Bangladeshi NGOs to redouble their advocacy and monitoring efforts. Sustained international media attention also stands to play a critical role in documenting events and informing the situation as it unfolds in the camps.

Lessons from other large-scale refugee responses should spur discussion on solutions that involve a range of development, humanitarian and private-sector stakeholders to address the needs of refugees and the state hosting them. The Jordan Compact is particularly instructive on how multiple approaches can and should be pursued simultaneously, including traditional solutions such as resettling highly vulnerable refugees to third countries. Canada, for example, has historically resettled Rohingya and has expressed its willingness to take more.

Ultimately, pressure must remain on Myanmar to create conditions for safe and dignified returns, including access to justice and citizenship. But until this happens, the international community should continue to support Bangladesh in hosting Rohingya refugees.

History has shown us that Bangladesh will not host the Rohingya forever. It has also shown that premature returns won't work, and that ambitious agreements such as the Jordan Compact can create international solidarity with states hosting large numbers of refugees. Myanmar, states in the region and the international community have failed generations of Rohingya people. It would be unconscionable for it to happen again.

*Caitlin Wake is a senior research officer at the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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