Rohingya Muslims say their evening prayers in a half completed structure at a refugee camp in Bangladesh.Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Rohingya refugees are fleeing the camps in Bangladesh, and some have gone into hiding, out of fear of being sent back to Myanmar this week, according to aid groups.
Repatriation of the Rohingya is scheduled to begin on Thursday, but it is proving controversial, with the first batch of 4,000 “approved” refugees put on a list for return without their consent and most, if not all, have said they do not want to go back to Myanmar under current conditions.
“The authorities repeatedly tried to motivate the ones on the returning refugee list to go back. But instead, they were intimidated and fled to other camps,” said Nur Islam, from Jamtoli refugee camp.
The account was echoed by Crisis Group, who said that interviews with those in the camps “indicate that some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated.” The Guardian previously reported on two suicide attempts by Rohingya after finding out they had been listed for return.
Over 700,000 Rohingya have crossed over the border from Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August 2017, fleeing a violent crackdown by the military and the Buddhist locals which saw their villages razed to the ground, women raped and thousands killed.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on Tuesday urged Bangladesh to halt the plans, warning of further grave violations against the Muslim minority. “We are witnessing terror and panic among those Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will,” she said in a statement.
The restrictive conditions and violence against the Muslim minority, described by the UN as ethnic cleansing, has continued since last summer, with the head of the UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar recently stating that the genocide in Rahkine is “ongoing”. Last week there were demonstrations by Rakhine nationalists against the the return of the Rohingya.
UNHCR have said it will not be facilitating the repatriations. In a statement on Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that before the Rohingya agree to return, they should be allowed to make “go and see” visits to Rahkine.
Indeed, it appears that those Rohingya returning to Rahkine will not have free movement and will live under the same repressive restrictions as before the military crackdown last year.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement, said the returning Rohingya will be restricted only to the Maungdaw Township. He said refugees who return to Myanmar will be taken to Hla Phoe Khaung Camp, where they will spend one night, then return to homes in Maungdaw.
“Houses are being built for the homeless,” said the minister. “Returnees with no homes will be settled in temporary residences located in areas nearest to their original homes. They will be allowed to participate in rebuilding their homes, and they will be paid for their labour. If they choose the government program, they will be allowed to stay at Hla Phoe Khaung Camp till their homes are completed.”
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Bangladesh has built two centres in Cox’s Bazar where it will begin processing the Rohingya vetted as “ready for return” in batches of 150 people per day. On Monday Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said they were ready to begin repatriations on Thursday but UNHCR, who have been asked to verify everyone on the list to determine their willingness to return, said there were still “logistical difficulties”.
While the Bangladesh authorities have insisted that all returns will be voluntary, there is evidence that the refugees on the list are being pressured by visits from Bangladesh camp officials who have told them they “have to go back”.
Mohammad Ismail, 50, who lives in Jamtoli refugee camp with his wife and six children was among those notified last week by a Rohingya camp leader that his whole family were on the list to be sent back on Thursday.
“I told them I was too scared to return to Burma in the current situation because it is still very unsafe for all Rohingya. But they said there was no way to escape and we would have to return within a few days,” he told the Guardian.
He added: “I am very scared if Bangladeshi police will force us to cross the border. If they try to force us to go back I think I have to commit suicide. It’s better to commit suicide than going to Burma without a guarantee of safety.”
AFP contributed to this report
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