Language considerations for repatriation
While repatriation plans will reportedly not proceed until 2019, recent events have increased questions and concerns about these plans and related arrangements in the Rohingya community. Rohingya people have clearly said that they need information to make decisions for themselves and their families. They also want to be meaningfully consulted and engaged in these processes. When dealing with such a sensitive and emotional subject, it will be helpful for the humanitarian community to know some key terms.
There is no single word for ‘repatriation’ in the Rohingya language, and few Rohingya speakers understand the Bangla word protyabashon, which is the word Chittagonians use as well. Instead, Rohingya people use the phrase Burmat wafis fatai don, which means ‘to be returned to Myanmar.’ Through this expression and other phrases, it’s noticeable that anything related to repatriation is ‘done to’ people. That is, the phrases used suggest that people lack agency or are not at the centre of these decisions.
The term ‘voluntary repatriation’ is difficult to explain in Rohingya. The phrase nizor kushi-kushi Burmat wafis loizon, meaning ‘to agreeably bring back to Myanmar’, is used by Rohingya speakers. Furthermore, Rohingya people typically associate the English word ‘voluntary,’ with ‘volunteer,’ which is often used by Chittagonian and Bangla speakers in the camps. The Rohingya community in Bangladesh has absorbed ‘volunteer’ into their language to refer specifically to Rohingya aid workers (they pronounce it ‘bolontiyar’). This word association may lead to confusion amongst the Rohingya community, some thinking that volunteers are returning to Myanmar. As many of the technical terms associated with repatriation do not exist in the Rohingya language, it's important to explain the concepts using simple terminology. For example nizor issa or kushi-kushi for ‘own choice’ and wafis for ‘return’.
Transit camps are usually called gãat1, from the Bangla word ghat, meaning ‘river jetty.’ This is because the transit camps are usually along the Naf River near these jetties.
The Rohingya community have to manage multiple cards with various functions and sometimes this creates confusion or false expectations. These include nutrition cards, vaccination cards, and of course the MOHA (Bangladesh Ministry of Home Affairs) cards, which Rohingya people call the gonta card (which literally means ‘pendant card’ since they sometimes wear it around the neck like a necklace). The introduction of the UNHCR biometric card has added to misperceptions and expectations and has led to many rumours (though some efforts have been made to address these concerns). There are fears among Rohingya people that these cards give away their identity (foriso) and may enlist them for forced repatriation. Several agencies working in camps have seen that some members of the community now avoid showing their nutrition or vaccination cards for fear of being repatriated.
Though the community often perceives repatriation negatively, there is still an overwhelming desire in the Rohingya community to return one day to their homeland. Many Rohingya say that they will not volunteer to return unless their demands are met. For some of them, this includes receiving Burmese citizenship (tairinsa, borrowed from Burmese) and official recognition of their ethnicity (zaat or qaum).