Protests erupted in parts of Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps on Wednesday as authorities attempted to restart controversial plans to begin sending refugees back to Myanmar.
The two countries announced last week that repatriations could start on 22 August, beginning with 3,450 Rohingya drawn from refugee registration lists.
Officials say any returns will be voluntary, but most Rohingya – as well as rights groups and UN agencies – say it’s too dangerous to go back to their homes in Rakhine State, two years after a military crackdown sent more than 700,000 fleeing to Bangladesh.
As the latest deadline loomed this week, Bangladeshi authorities and officials with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, were only just beginning to interview prospective returnees to see if they want to return. Several Rohingya families told The New Humanitarian they would refuse.
“If I go back to Myanmar, I'll end up in a mass grave,” said Zafar Alam, a 32-year-old originally from Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine, the flashpoint of the August 2017 military purge.
He said his wife and five children were on the list, along with six other families in the neighbourhood. “No one has agreed to return,” he said. “Either they send all of us back in one go, or no one goes. We are not safe there.”
”There will be no repatriation without talking to us first.”
It was unclear how many of the refugees might volunteer, but news of the slated returns sent some Rohingya men into hiding, fearful they could be forced back to Myanmar.
“When the UNHCR officials came, my husband left,” said Rashida, a woman in another part of the camps.
Groups of Rohingya staged protests on the eve of the latest return date. Community leaders are demanding full rights and citizenship before they return – Myanmar has stripped most Rohingya of citizenship over generations, and refuses to acknowledge the community as one of the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups.
On Wednesday, hundreds of residents signed or marked with thumbprints a statement denouncing the planned returns.
”There will be no repatriation without talking to us first,” the statement read.
The UNHCR is screening potential returnees in interviews this week, though the agency also says that all returns must be voluntary.
“Those who express a wish to return will be invited for a second interview to ensure the voluntariness of their decision,” said UNHCR spokesperson Louise Donovan. “They will be asked to complete a voluntary repatriation form.”
Bangladeshi authorities also say no Rohingya will be forced to go back to Myanmar. On Wednesday, officials in the camps told TNH that 235 families had undergone initial interviews, though this did not mean they would return.
“This is a voluntary process and the interviews are being done to make sure there is no fear or pressure on the families,” said Abul Kalam, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, who heads a government body that oversees the camps.
Third time lucky?
This is Bangladesh and Myanmar’s third attempt at repatriation since the August 2017 military crackdown. Previous tries in January and November last year sparked fear, protests, and confusion over how would-be returnee lists were gathered.
Shamimul Huq Pavel, an official in Kalam’s office, said the latest list was drawn straight from refugee registration rolls in one part of the camps.
“When we started the process of registering the arriving refugees, it began from these camps,” he said. “When we handed the list to Myanmar officials, these names were on the top.”
The latest attempt at repatriation comes as Rohingya refugees were planning to mark the second anniversary of the military crackdown that forced them from their homes, which began on 25 August 2017. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates at least 9,000 Rohingya died in the onslaught. UN rights investigators accuse Myanmar’s military of committing genocide.
Human rights groups have called on Bangladesh and Myanmar to suspend repatriation plans.
“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said on Wednesday.
And violence continues to flare in parts of Rakhine, even as authorities plan returns.
Since 21 June, Myanmar’s government has imposed a sweeping internet shutdown in parts of the state where clashes between the military and the Arakan Army – an ethnic Rakhine armed group – have displaced at least 30,000 people this year. Rights watchdogs fear the information blackout could be providing cover for further abuses.
(TOP PHOTO: Rohingya men wait at a place where officials of UN and Bangladesh refugee commission interviewed Rohingya families at a refugee camp in Teknaf on 21 August 2019.)