Traveling at speed in a ramshackle truck, a group of 44 Rohingya refugees make the last stage of their harrowing 10-day journey into Bangladesh after fleeing from Myanmar.
Dazed and exhausted, they stumble out of the vehicle when they arrive at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, many of them cradling young children. They rest at the side of the road, and begin to reflect on the horrors they say they escaped.
“My son was killed by the Myanmar army, and still I stayed there,” 42-year-old Rohingya refugee Mohammed Salim tells CNN. “But then they destroyed my house, so there was no place for me to stay.”
The escape of Salim and his neighbors, who arrived in Bangladesh last Saturday some five months after the initial crackdown by Myanmar’s military that triggered the exodus, underscores the fact that the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State is far from over and the repatriation process, which had been slated to begin this week, may be dangerously premature.
“Girls were unable to sleep there at night, girls would stay awake in the fear of the military,” another newly arrived refugee, 40 year old Assia Khatun says. “They used to harm us, harass us, hurt us … there were tears and sorrow everywhere.”
‘We will not go’
Since, August 25, 2017, an estimated 688,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh – amid widespread reports of military-backed mass rape, murder and the burning down of entire villages. The UN and the US have labeled the violence against the mainly Muslim Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar denies these charges, saying its military has only targeted suspected terrorists that killed 12 security officials in late August, although in January it admitted involvement in the killing of 10 Rohingya buried in a mass grave.
Now, the refugees who escaped this persecution are being told to go back to a place where they say their lives are under threat, as part of an agreement made between the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh two months ago.
It’s not clear exactly when the first Rohingya refugees will return across the border, but the prospect is raising fears in the sprawling Cox’s Bazar camps, especially among the newest arrivals whose memories of Myanmar’s persecution are still raw.
“If they try to send us back there now, we will not go,” 24-year-old Rohingya refugee Halima Khatun says, as she held her young baby in her arms. “If the government of Bangladesh threatens to kill us by cutting our throats, we will not go back even then.”
Confusion over start of repatriation
Myanmar and Bangladesh appear to be at odds over when exactly repatriation will start.
Myanmar said Wednesday that it had been ready to accept refugees on Tuesday and wanted to know why Bangladesh had delayed it.
“The Myanmar government has kept its side of the agreement between the two countries,” said Zaw Htay, the Myanmar government spokesman. “The Bangladeshi side must inform the Myanmar government as to why they have delayed the process.”
Bangladesh officials say the vetting process and the building of temporary shelters is already underway, but there’s still no timeline for the physical repatriation of the refugees.
Mohammed Abul Kalam, the Bangladesh’s Relief and Refugee Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) on Monday denied reports that the process had been delayed, saying more work needed to be done to allay concerns among the Rohingya refugees. He believes that the refugees will want to return once their fears abate.
“(Once they know) we have bargained with the Myanmar side about their safety, their security, and their livelihoods, they will certainly be inspired and hopeful to get back I think,” he said.
Eventually, he says 1,500 people a week would be repatriated but it’s not clear how many people would be taken back in total. The whole process could take two years.
The Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority has long faced persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which describes them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many of them tracing their roots back hundreds of years.
Protests against repatriation
One of the key concerns among the Rohingya is that the refugees will be repatriated to temporary camps inside Myanmar with no timeline or guarantees on if and when they would be able to return to their villages.
Myanmar says the returnees will be housed in temporary accommodation including at the 124-acre Hla Pho Khung camp near Maungdaw township, which can accommodate 30,000 people. Later, they would be able to return home, officials say.
But the official assurances don’t inspire trust among refugees who recall that following ethnic clashes in northern Rakhine State in 2012, thousands of Rohingya were placed in internment camps in and around the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, and many have never been allowed to return home.
On Saturday, some refugees organized small protests in the camps, holding signs with a list of demands they want guaranteed before they will consider returning.
The protests were timed for the visit of Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar, who is currently on a visit to Cox’s Bazar in an effort to try to fulfill her remit on Myanmar after she was refused access to the country.
The demands of the refugees include assurances of an end to the violence in Myanmar, and guarantees on their safety and security. They also demand official recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnicity in Myanmar, which was denied in the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law.
“Any return has to be voluntary, it has to occur in conditions of safety and dignity, and it has to be sustainable,” said Kevin Allen, Head of Operations at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar. “To ensure that this happens, there is a lot of work that needs to occur,” he added.
Allen said that UNHCR was not involved in forming the repatriation deal between the two countries, adding that it is now “critical” that the two sides bring the agency into the conversation to ensure a safe and proper process.
Amnesty: ‘Alarmingly premature’
Activist groups have slammed the move to begin the process so soon, with Amnesty International describing it as “alarmingly premature” and a “terrifying prospect.”
“The very idea of repatriations now is a farce,” said Matthew Smith, the founder of human rights organization Fortify Rights. “There must be genuine changes for Rohingya in Myanmar before there can be any serious discussions of repatriation.”
The RRRC’s Kalam insists that no refugees will be forced to go back, under the voluntary terms of the agreement.
But there is trepidation among the Rohingya refugees with long memories. Some remember a previous repatriation deal signed between the two sides in the early 1990s, following a similar pattern of military crackdown and exodus in Myanmar.
According to a 1994 report by Refugees International, Bangladesh local officials began beating people and withholding food rations from the refugees to pressure them to return.
Some Rohingya refugees – including the newly arrived Salim – say they would rather risk death in the crowded Bangladesh camps than return to their homes and face torture.
“I will be happy to die here because it is a Muslim country,” he said.
The hope for an easier, more dignified death - now the frightening aspiration for a people who have learned to expect nothing.
Journalist Salman Saeed reported from Cox’s Bazar. CNN’s Katie Hunt and Angus Watson contributed to this report