Rohingya refugees refuse to return to Myanmar without rights guarantee
Families chosen for repatriation are too scared to return and fear not being given citizenship
Plans to begin repatriating the thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled ethnic cleansing in Rahkine state in 2017 look likely to fail once again, with the refugees refusing to go back to Myanmar voluntarily. Over 3,000 Rohingya were placed on a list of refugees and approved for repatriation as part of a fresh attempt by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to start sending back some of the more than one million refugees living in squalid camps in Cox's Bazar.
Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, said on Wednesday that transportation and logistical assistance was on standby for any refugees who wanted to cross the border on 22 August, the given date for repatriations to begin. "Today 214 Rohingya families were interviewed in the process of the intention surveys," Kalam told the Guardian on Wednesday. "We are currently uploading the collected data of those families. Right now we cannot reveal anything about the intention of any family on the issue of return to Myanmar this week."
However, a Bangladesh refugee relief official who was present during the intention surveys, led by UNHCR, said they did not find a single family willing to return to Myanmar on Thursday.
"Almost all of the 214 families we interviewed today said they would not return until their key demands are met. Rakhine is still hostile and unsafe for them, they said," said the official, who asked not to be identified as he did not have permission to speak to the press. He was echoed by one of the Rohingya camp leaders, known as a majhi, who said that he had not spoken to any refugees willing to go back under current conditions. "The Bangladesh government sought some names of some refugees and some other majhis, and I supplied some list of the refugees to the government officials," he said, also asking not to be be identified, fearing reprisals from the authorities.
"We were never told that those names would be sent to Burma seeking clearance for their repatriation. Many refugees are aggrieved for their names were sent to Burmese authorities without taking their consent." More than 700,000 Rohingya fled over to border to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown in Rahkine state in which villages were razed, women raped and thousands killed. A UN fact-finding mission declared the violence had "genocidal intent".
While repatriation is due to begin soon, Louise Donovan, UNHCR spokesperson in Cox's Bazar, said the officials of her agency were still carrying out the "intention surveys" of those on the list of 3,450 approved for return. "We are not currently commenting on the process of intentions surveys, as it is still ongoing," she said. However, with conditions in Rahkine state still volatile, and with Myanmar's refusal to guarantee a pathway to citizenship for the Rohingya, the consensus is that all the refugees remained too fearful to go back.
"We want a guarantee of citizenship first and they must call us Rohingya, then we can go," said Ruhul Amin, who was speaking for a nine-member family. "We can't go without our rights." Another refugee who found out he was on the list of 3,450 approved for return, and asked to remain unnamed, was adamant that he would not be crossing the border on Thursday. "We cannot return unless there is a guarantee from the Burma government that our citizenship rights would be returned," he said.
Burma is telling the world that it is trying its best to make the situation for the Rohingya safe so that we can return to our homes. But, the reality is it has done nothing to help us return peacefully. This would be the second failed attempt to start the repatriation of the Rohingya. A similar plan in November failed when none of the refugees listed for return agreed to go voluntarily. In the days before, panic had gripped the camps, with many refugees fleeing to the woods out of fear that they would be forced back, and extra military forces were brought in who restricted movements in the camps.
This time the mood was described as "much calmer" by Kalam and others on the ground, as UNHCR went door to door through the three camps where most listed for return live. However, UNHCR has been banned from visiting Rahkine state by the Myanmar government, so could not verify for itself the conditions the Rohingya would be returned to. There are fears that they would just be placed in newly built transit camps, which have been described as "open-air prisons", as their Rohingya villages, which were almost all burned to the ground during the violence, have not been rebuilt.
The announcement of the repatriation plans last week was met with almost universal condemnation from human rights groups, which stressed the conditions in Myanmar were still highly unsafe for the Rohingya. "Repatriations now would be dangerous and reckless," said Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights. A UN-established fact-finding mission last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar's military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their actions in Rahkine against the Rohingya. Myanmar has rejected the report and any suggestion that its forces did anything wrong.
Hannah Ellis-Petersen is the Guardian's south-east Asia correspondent and Shaikh Azizur Rahman is freelance journalist based in India