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Rohingya fear return to Myanmar

November 14, 2018

As a bilateral agreement to return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar is set to take effect, there have been unconfirmed reports of refugees disappearing from camps to avoid a forced return to the violence-marred country.

Myanmar Flucht Rohingya
Image: picture-alliance/abaca

In October, a UN fact-finding mission said that that an"ongoing genocide" is still taking place in Myanmar against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group living in the country's western Rakhine state.

On November 15, despite warnings from the UN and aid organizations, the final phase of a "repatriation" plan is set to kick in, which will begin large-scale refugee returns from Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Early reports say that over 2,000 people are part of a group that Bangladesh plans to return.

Read more: Pace of Rohingya repatriation depends on Myanmar, says Bangladeshi official 

Bangladeshi authorities have said that only those who volunteer will be returned, but the UN says that many refugees fear turning back. "We have noticed the news of the disappearance of some Rohingya from the camps," Joseph Surja Tripura, a public information officer for the UN Human Rights Agency (UNHCR), told DW, adding that the contract between Myanmar and Bangladesh says that no one can be "forcibly" repatriated.

"We have been trying to find out whether everyone is returning willingly," said Tripura. 

In early 2018, Myanmar and Bangladesh began negotiating a repatriation deal that outlines the return of Rohingya that have fled Myanmar since 2016.

Read more: Did UN 'self-censorship' aggravate Rohingya crisis in Myanmar?

Since August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya have fled their homes and villages in Rakhine to neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal scorched-earth campaign carried out by Myanmar's military following an attack by Rohingya insurgents on Myanmar security forces.

According to an exhaustive investigation by Amnesty International, there are details obtained by survivors outlining "the murder, rape, torture, and village burning that the Myanmar security forces carried out in attacking the Rohingya in villages across Rakhine."

Read more: Rohingya genocide: Will Myanmar generals face ICC justice?

The UN has called the campaign a "textbook definition of ethnic cleansing." In December 2017, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) released a report outlining that in 2017 between August 25 and September 24 alone, an estimated 6,700 people, including 730 children, were killed as a result of "clearance operations" in Rakhine.

Nothing left?

"We think that the situation in Myanmar isn't comfortable enough yet for Rohingya to return there. We think more needs to be done in Myanmar before repatriating them there," said Tripura.

As the Rohingya are considered in Myanmar to be stateless, illegal aliens and are not granted citizenship, "repatriation" of the refugees would have a limited effect in reducing their suffering.

Read more: Myanmar military top brass involved in Rohingya atrocities: Amnesty International

'I left my body there': A displaced Rohingya woman's story

Many Rohingya villages in Rakhine were destroyed and most of the refugees currently living in camps like Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh no longer have homes to return to.

"We won't return to Myanmar until our security is ensured there," Rohingya refugee, Abul Kashem, told a DW correspondent on Tuesday in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

"They have to return our land and property to us. They are still attacking Rohingya there. Houses have been burnt. Torture has been going on. We don't see any hope for security there," said Kashem.

Rohingya Flüchtlingslager
Over 720,000 Rohingya refugees fled to the Cox's Bazar district of BangladeshImage: Getty Images/P. Bronstein

No guarantees

In August, Bangladesh's refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, told DW that Myanmar had not been able to "reconstruct villages and homes" for Rohingya. However, he added that reception centers and a transit camp would be ready for use.

At the time, Kalam pointed out that there was no guarantee that Rohingya would be able to return to their villages or places where they wished to stay, as stipulated in the agreement. Four months later as repatriation is set to begin, it is not clear if these issues have been resolved.

On Tuesday, Kalam told DW that Bangladesh and Myanmar were "ready" to repatriate Rohingya refugees, adding that he was not sure if refugees were fleeing the camps. 

"We haven't got any concrete information on the disappearance of Rohingya refugees from any camp," said Kalam. "We will know about it once the head count is done. We have started the repatriation process based on the primary list," he added.

Read more: Rohingya people in Myanmar: What you need to know

However, a Rohingya refugee, Nurul Haque, told a DW correspondent in Cox's Bazar that she fled Balukhali refugee camp after hearing about plans to repatriate the Rohingya living there to Myanmar. "We don't want to return to Myanmar. They will torture us if we go there," she said.

"We came to Bangladesh after suffering for a long time," Mohammad Amin, another refugee living in Cox's Bazar told a DW correspondent. "We have been tortured there. Our lands were grabbed. We demand justice."

"We want to get back everything that was looted from us over the years. Our security has to be ensured. Only then we will return to Myanmar. Otherwise, we won't go there."

As of Wednesday, there have been reports of an increased military presence at the camps, with the AFP news agency reporting police and soldiers conducting patrols and checking ID cards.

Additional reporting by DW correspondents in Bangladesh Harun Ur Rashid Swapan and Abdur Rahim.

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia