Rohingya refugees collect water at Kutupalong refugee camp in BangladeshChandan Khanna/AFP
Rights groups say a plan to return Rohingya to Myanmar from Bangladesh as early as next week is dangerously premature, while the refugees have been kept in the dark about their own immediate future.
Roughly 730,000 Rohingya surged into Bangladesh starting in August 2017, fleeing a military purge that a UN rights investigation says amounts to genocide.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to restart stalled repatriation for Rohingya refugees on 15 November. The plan, announced after high-level meetings between the two countries last week, would see an initial 2,260 Rohingya sent back to Myanmar. But it’s unclear who will be sent home, or what the authorities in Bangladesh will do if Rohingya refugees refuse to go. An original January start date came and went with no movement, but it raised fear and confusion in Bangladesh’s packed refugee settlements.
Rights groups are calling on Bangladesh to shelve the latest plan, saying returns now are “dangerous” and still “highly premature”. Generations of Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, and apartheid-like restrictions and hostility toward Rohingya have not dissipated in the last year.
Rohingya refugees themselves say they haven’t been consulted on returns; many say they won’t go back until their safety and rights can be guaranteed.
Here’s what we know:
Who will return?
Bangladesh and Myanmar say their plan calls for Rohingya refugees to be returned in groups of 150. Both countries have repeatedly said that returns will be “safe and voluntary”. They have compiled lists of several thousand refugees currently living in Bangladesh, but Human Rights Watch says authorities in Bangladesh “culled the names at random”.
“Bangladesh does not have any policy of local integration and the Rohingya must return to their own country to secure their own future”
“The names on the list we prepared were not chosen because they particularly wanted to go back,” Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told the rights group in May.
The UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said on Tuesday that Rohingya in Bangladesh’s camps are “in deep fear” that their names could be on the list.
Where will they return to?
Myanmar authorities say refugees will be transferred to a “transit camp” built in a village tract called Hla Poe Kaung, north of the town of Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State.
An analysis of satellite images for IRIN earlier this year suggests the camp has been built over the bulldozed remnants of at least four former Rohingya villages, including land that was torched and razed during last year’s military purge. More than 100 new buildings and two helicopter pads were under construction over a 240-hectare swathe of cleared land.
(Swipe the image to compare: The image on the left shows a view of the repatriation camp near Hla Poe Kaung village on 9 January. The image on the right shows construction at the same site on 27 February. Image credits: ©2018 DigitalGlobe, Inc. Satellite imagery analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT)
Myanmar authorities continue to place heavy restrictions on humanitarian groups and media in northern Rakhine. Following an assessment of 23 villages in the area in September, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said Rohingya who remain in northern Rakhine aren’t allowed to move freely and have difficulty accessing healthcare and schools. UNHCR said all groups in the area, including Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine communities, live with a prevailing “fear and mistrust” of each other.
What are Rohingya saying?
Rohingya say they have not been consulted about return plans – or much of what affects them in day-to-day life in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.
The Free Rohingya Coalition, led by activists based outside the country, said it was “extremely disturbed” by the latest plan, noting that previous repatriations following refugee influxes in the late 1970s and early 1990s only resulted in further violence when refugees returned to Myanmar.
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Rohingya have “widespread and well-founded fear that their lives, families, and communities will once again face further attacks once they are back in their homeland,” the group said in a statement.
Ongoing research in Bangladesh’s camps shows confusion and fear among Rohingya refugees. A March survey by Internews, BBC Media Action, and Translators Without Borders found some Rohingya were keen to return to Myanmar but were worried about their legal status, further violence, and how they would survive with their former homes and villages demolished. Others were too afraid to even consider going back. Many said they lacked clear information about how the return process would work, or if they would be forced to return.
“The key finding from the data is that the Rohingya community, while not united in their opinions… appear to agree on one thing: a great desire for more information,” the research concluded.
What is the international community saying?
Rights groups have largely condemned the latest return plan, labelling it premature and dangerous. The UN’s Lee and Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh to abort its repatriation scheme.
Many have warned that returning Rohingya will be at grave risk of further violence.
Rohingya “have been slaughtered, persecuted, and driven out”, Susannah Sirkin of the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement. “One cannot bring survivors back to Rakhine State without having guarantees for their safety.”
UNHCR, which had previously signed a controversial agreement with Myanmar laying the groundwork for a future repatriation, said it is not involved with the latest return plan and that it is not yet safe for Rohingya to return.
What are Bangladesh and Myanmar saying?
Bangladesh has been ambivalent to incoming Rohingya over successive governments and multiple refugee influxes. The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has been more receptive to the refugees and allowed humanitarian groups to work in the expanding camps. But she and other officials have repeatedly said that the Rohingya must one day return home.
“Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways”
“Bangladesh does not have any policy of local integration and the Rohingya must return to their own country to secure their own future,” the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a September press release.
Myanmar authorities have denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya, instead saying the country’s military was justified in responding to attacks on border areas by a small group of Rohingya fighters. Médecins Sans Frontières says at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed. Civilian leaders have barred rights investigators from entering the country, and pushed back against attempts to probe or prosecute alleged crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
Might political considerations come into play?
During previous returns in the late 1970s and early 1990s, rights groups accused Bangladesh of forcing Rohingya out, and UNHCR was criticised for participating in and effectively encouraging returns when it couldn’t ensure the safety of Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Circumstances are different today, but some have warned that the situation is volatile. Bangladesh is heading towards parliamentary elections slated for December and Human Rights Watch says the government appears “anxious” to begin repatriations by then.
In a June analysis, Liam Mahony, a former consultant for UN agencies in Myanmar, warned that political pressures or a destructive natural disaster could suddenly change how Rohingya are viewed in Bangladesh.
“Public sympathy for the Rohingya will not last forever, and the current situation is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways,” he said.