Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal army crackdown last year say they are terrified of going back to Myanmar, as authorities begin the process of repatriating thousands of people living in crowded refugee camps near the Bangladeshi border.
“I am scared, I was told that if we don’t go back our house here will be broken,” 60-year-old Rohingya refugee Rahima Khatun told CNN from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. “I would rather eat poison or jump from the boat and die rather than go back.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar were set to start the repatriation of 2,260 Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State on Thursday, however by late afternoon no Rohingya families had volunteered to return, according to Bangladeshi authorities.
“We have not found any volunteers. We will continue looking,” Mohammad Abdul Kalam, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner said. “We cannot force anybody to go back.”
International rights groups have fiercely objected to plans to return the Rohingyas, for fear they’ll continue to face persecution or be confined to permanent displacement camps without freedom of movement or the right to a livelihood.
Bangladesh has repeatedly said that no one will be forced to go back to Myanmar, but with little information given to those living in a sprawling refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar, the process has been steeped in rumor, fear and uncertainty.
“We are scared to return to Myanmar because if we go they will kill us,” 51-year-old Rohingya refugee Majeda told CNN.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which is not facilitating returns but has assessed the willingness of those chosen to go back, said the conditions in Myanmar are not conducive for refugees to be repatriated.
More than 720,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh following a systematic campaign by the Myanmar military that began in August last year. A UN fact-finding mission described the assault, which included widespread reports of mass rape, murder and arson, as genocide. The Myanmar government has denied that its soldiers deliberately attacked unarmed Rohingya.
‘Terror and panic’
There was a heavier than usual army presence in the camp on Wednesday, with security forces stepping up checks on refugees and journalists.
As word spread that some refugees were on a list of more than 2,000 approved by Myanmar to return, several families went into hiding, fearing they would be forced back. Two others attempted to kill themselves, the UN said.
Mohammedul Hassan said his family fled to another camp after they found out they were included on the repatriation list and Bangladesh security forces told them to prepare to go back.
“Everyday at least 10 to 12 officers came and told us,” said 18-year-old Hassan. “My brothers were killed and I was shot. How can we go back to Myanmar without having justice?”
Rights groups say Bangladesh has done little to allay the fears of refugees and aid workers that repatriations would be voluntary. There have also been reports of Bangladesh security forces threatening and physically beating refugees, raising concerns that they may be coerced into returning.
Kalam, the Bangladesh repatriation official, told CNN the allegations against security forces were “unfounded,” adding that “we will only repatriate those who volunteer to go back.”
“This is a clear case where the Bangladesh authorities are failing to protect the refugee population, by allowing rumors to spread or fester, said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of human rights group Fortify Rights. “No refugee in Bangladesh should be forced into hiding because they think they will be forced back to Myanmar. Dhaka has responsibility to prevent that from happening.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday that “we are witnessing terror and panic” among the refugees “who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will,” and she called on the Bangladesh government to halt repatriations.
What awaits returning refugees?
Many Rohingya have said they are willing to go back but only under the right conditions. Rohingya leaders said these include the right to citizenship, the return of lands, and for military leaders to be held accountable for abuses.
“We were tortured, female members in our family were raped and children were burnt alive,” 39-year-old Rohingya refugee Dil Muhammad told CNN. “We don’t want to go back until our demands are accepted.”
It is unlikely that any of these demands will be met.
The stateless Rohingya have long been a persecuted minority in Myanmar that have been kept in apartheid-like conditions across Rakhine State, where they are subjected to restrictions on movement, medical care and even births. They are labeled as “Bengali” by many in the country who see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Around 120,000 Rohingya remain sequestered in displacement camps around the state capital Sittwe following ethnic violence six years ago. Rights groups fear a similar fate will befall returning refugees.
“This inhumane arrangement must not be allowed to become the status quo among any Rohingya refugees who may return to Myanmar,” Save the Children’s Asia Regional Director, Hassan Noor Saadi, said in a statement.
Myanmar officials said those who return to the country would stay in temporary “transit centers” before being moved into villages.
“Their stated addresses will be scrutinized and if found correct, they will be allowed to return to them,” Union Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Win Myat Aye, told reporters on Sunday. Those without homes would be settled in “temporary residences located in areas nearest to their original homes.”
Rohingya advocates question how refugees can go back to these areas as entire villages were destroyed by fire and expunged of its Rohingya population.
“Quite a lot of people are from places that don’t exist anymore. So where are they going to go?” said Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which advocates on Rohingya issues.
Adding to woes is a requirement by Myanmar that refugees sign up for a national verification card, otherwise they will not be permitted to travel out of the transit camp or apply for citizenship. Rights groups say refugees are reluctant to accept the cards, fearing it will strip them of their Rohingya identity.
“Rohingya families were burnt out of their homes, their people watched loved ones get massacred, there was systemic rape, so just a few months later to demand that this population work with the authorities and particularly with respect to issues of identity, it’s not on the cards,” said Smith.
No meaningful changes
By restricting access to northern Rakhine, Myanmar has made it almost impossible for independent monitors, journalists or humanitarian aid groups to build a clear picture of the conditions Rohingya will return to.
Under a memorandum of understanding with the Myanmar government, the UNHCR and UN Development Fund (UNDP) were granted access to conduct initial assessments in 26 villages in Rakhine – a tiny portion of the state.
From reports of Rohingya who stayed following the crackdown, the picture is bleak.
On a government-led tour to Maungdaw in September, CNN found that Rohingya villagers were living under strict curfews and movement restrictions. Rohingya were unable to speak freely, terrified of reprisals from security forces, which kept a close eye on them.
“I have no job, no education. We can’t go anywhere, the government keeps us like prisoners,” 21-year-old Maung Amin told CNN by phone, because he was too scared to meet in person.
Compounding fears that security conditions are not right for refugees to return, there are ongoing reports of alleged killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday.
Rohingya are also continuing to flee across the border. There had been 11,432 arrivals in Bangladesh this year up until mid-June, according to the UN.
“Myanmar authorities have made no meaningful changes to the daily lives of Rohingya left in northern Rakhine and other parts of the state,” Fortify Rights’ Smith said.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has made no comment on the repatriations. On the sidelines of a bilateral meeting in Singapore on Wednesday, US Vice President Mike Pence told Suu Kyi that the persecution of the minority was inexcusable.
Unwanted by the leaders of a country they cannot legally call their own, the Rohingya have a simple wish.
“I want justice and we want our land and our property so we (can) live in peace,” Rahima Khatun said.
CNN’s Nikhil Kumar contributed to this report.