Fresh attempt at repatriations agreed but refugees fear they will return to persecution and violence
Myanmar and Bangladesh are to make a fresh attempt to begin repatriating the Rohingya Muslims who fled ethnic cleansing in Rahkine state in 2017, though the community say they have not been consulted, Agencies report.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled over to border to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown in Rahkine state which saw villages razed, women raped and thousands killed. A UN fact-finding mission declared the violence had “genocidal intent”.
A document prepared by UN agency UNHCR to be sent to the Rohingya community to inform them of the repatriation plan said: “The Government of Myanmar has confirmed that 3,450 Rohingya refugees are eligible to return. This is a welcome first step as it acknowledges that your right to return is recognized.”
According to UNHCR, the Bangladesh government shared the names of Rohingya approved for repatriation with the UN agency on 8 August.
Louise Donovan, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Cox’s Bazar, said: “If any express the intention to return voluntarily, UNHCR will meet with them on an individual basis and in a confidential setting to confirm the voluntariness of their decision and complete a voluntary repatriation form. The refugees will make the decision themselves.”
She emphasised that “refugees who decide to exercise their right to return must be able to return to their places of origin or a place of their choice.”
However, the situation is complex as UNHCR have no access to Rahkine state so are unable to verify first hand the conditions the Rohingya would be returning to. “Responsibility for ensuring conditions are conducive for safe and dignified return rests with Myanmar,” said Donovan.
Several refugees in Cox’s Bazar told the Guardian that they while believed their names were in the list of 3,450 refugees, they had not been consulted or officially informed and had no intention of returning to Rahkine under the current circumstances.
Iman Hussain, 50, who lives in a refugee camp in Chakmar Kul village, Cox’s Bazar, since he fled Myanmar in 2017, said that he was too scared to return to his home now.
“I have been in tension for the past six or seven months since our majhi (Rohingya camp leader) told me that names of my all family members were in the list for repatriation,” he said. “But, from many sources we all know that the situation in Burma for the Rohingya continues to remain unsafe.”
Hussain added: “The government and the Buddhist majority society still view us as intruders, and they do not actually want us to return.”
Bangladesh have insisted that this will be a small-scale repatriation and no-one will be forced to return against their will.
This is the second attempt to begin repatriation, after a first effort in November failed when none of the 2,000 Rohingya approved for return agreed to go back to Myanmar voluntarily.
Over one million Rohingya are now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar but most fear return to Myanmar over concerns they would be placed in large government camps, described as “open air prisons”, with no freedom of movement or basic rights.
While the UN conditions for the return of the Rohingya is that it is “voluntary, safe and dignified” and that their rights and freedoms will be secured once they are back in Myanmar, there is no evidence to show this will be the case.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found “no evidence of widespread preparation for Rohingya refugees to return to safe and dignified conditions.” Instead it revealed that the burning and destruction of Rohingya villages by security forces had continued until this year, and that there were no homes for the Rohingya to return to, just large-scale camps, and six new military bases.
The hostile conditions in Rahkine have also escalated in recent months, with government troops fighting insurgents from the Arakan Army, a mainly Buddhist ethnic armed group fighting for greater autonomy.
A UN investigator said in July that human rights violations against civilians by security forces and insurgents in Rahkine may amount to fresh war crimes, citing reports of deaths during army interrogations.