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Rohingya refugees turn down second Myanmar repatriation effort

Bangladeshi official says potential returnees fear for their safety in Rakhine state
WT24 Desk

A second attempt to repatriate the thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh has failed after the authorities failed to convince the refugees it would be safe to return, The Guardian reports.

The Myanmar government had approved more than 3,000 Rohingya to be brought back to the country beginning on Thursday but, as during the first repatriation attempt in November, no refugees agreed to voluntarily board the buses to Myanmar.

A Bangladeshi government official confirmed that four families, or 18 people, from Shalbagan camp 26 in Cox’s Bazar had initially expressed interest in going back. They had almost boarded a vehicle to cross the border, but were dissuaded by fellow refugees who told them they would not be able to return to their original villages or have a pathway to citizenship.

A statement from the UN refugee agency said: “So far none of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time. UNHCR will continue assisting the government of Bangladesh in this process to ensure that all those cleared for return are interviewed.”

Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, said on Thursday that efforts would continue over the next few days. UNHCR had only interviewed a third of the 3,450 refugees, or 1,037 families as part of the agency’s intention surveys, he said.

“None of the listed refugees turned up expressing their willingness to return to Myanmar today,” he said. “Most Rohingya who took part in the intention survey very clearly said that they were very afraid of their physical safety in Rakhine and this is the main reason they do not want to go to Myanmar now.”

Kalam expressed disappointment that repatriation had stalled again and said Bangladesh had “done our best to help the Rohingya return to their homes”. He said the onus was now on Myanmar authorities to address the Rohingyas’ issues “sincerely and convincingly”.

According to those in the camps, about 20 Rohingya refugees living in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar crossed the border back to Myanmar of their own accord and have ended up in transit camps in Rahkine.

“Those four or five families disappeared from the camp at night,” said Jafor Alom, a fellow camp resident. “In the morning neighbours found them missing. Days later, through some sources, it came to light that they were at a transit camp in Rakhine. They also said they did not know if or when they would be allowed to return to their villages and they were anxious about that.”

The failed repatriation efforts come as a UN report revealed the extent to which the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, systematically used sexual violence, including the gang rape of men and women, as part of a strategy to intimidate the Rohingya during “clearance operations” in 2016 and 2017. It was these crackdowns that precipitated the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh, where they still live in squalid camps.

The UN fact-finding mission concluded that the Tatmadaw used sexual violence as “part of a deliberate, well-planned strategy to intimidate, terrorise and punish a civilian population”.

The continued lack of accountability for these crimes, which were experienced or witnessed by hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, was cited by many of those in the camps as one of the main reasons they refused to return to Myanmar.

“Our village was burnt by the military and the moghs [Rakhine Buddhists] and we witnessed many girls and women raped,” said one woman who was on the list of 3,450 refugees approved for repatriation. “None of those criminals has been brought to justice so how can we feel safe to return to our homes?”

The failed repatriation efforts this week coincide with the second anniversary of the 2017 crackdown in Rahkine. With little prospect of them going back to Myanmar, the Rohingya “feel as though they are in limbo with no end in sight” said Elizabeth Hallinan, Oxfam’s advocacy manager for its Rohingya response. “They are alive, but merely surviving.”

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