Myanmar has cleared 3,450 people to return, from a list of more than 22,000 provided by Bangladesh, according to Abul Kalam, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner for Bangladesh. Kalam said there was capacity to return 300 people per day.
“All infrastructure and logistics have been mobilized including adequate security measures to facilitate a voluntary and safe repatriation,” Kalam said, adding that the process would be voluntary.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which was asked by Bangladesh to assess the willingness of those chosen to go back, said “the refugees have the right to decide for themselves without pressure,” said UNHCR’s Senior Regional Public Information Officer Caroline Gluck.
August 25 marks two years since the Myanmar military launched a campaign of violence on the ethnic Muslim minority in the country’s Rakhine State, forcing more than 740,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar has long claimed to have been targeting terrorists.
Survivors said security forces stormed and burned down entire villages, raped women and girls, and slaughtered men, women and children. The atrocities have been described as genocide by the UN fact-finding commission, which called for Myanmar’s military leaders, including the commander-in-chief, to be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes and genocide.
The UNHCR began meeting refugees on the list on Tuesday accompanied by Bangladesh government officials and said the process was “proceeding and ongoing.”
“If any refugee expresses interest in returning, we would carry out a second interview with the individuals in a confidential setting to reconfirm their voluntariness and provide them as much information as we could about prevailing conditions in Myanmar,” Gluck said.
International rights groups have fiercely objected to plans to return the Rohingya, 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.
Many refugees are still terrified of going back and it remains unclear if any accepted the offer of voluntary repatriation Thursday.
A statement signed by Rohingya leaders in the camps on Wednesday expressed concern over “how this secret list of names was created and why we are include on it. We never volunteer our names to go on the list.”
“We have collected signatures from many of the 3,450 people who are on the repatriation list to show our unity and to raise our voice against this repatriation,” the letter read.
The two countries unsuccessfully tried to start repatriations in November 2018 but the move faced massive opposition from the refugees living in the Cox’s Bazar camps.
“We are scared to return to Myanmar because if we go they will kill us,” 51-year-old Rohingya refugee Majeda told CNN at the time.
About 1 million Rohingya are now living in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh – they cannot work and there are heavy restrictions on their movement.
“Bangladesh and Myanmar’s recent proposal to repatriate thousands of Rohingya has triggered widespread fear in the refugee camps. Memories of murder, rape and torched villages are still fresh in the minds of Rohingya refugees. With Myanmar’s military as powerful and remorseless as ever, it remains unsafe for anyone to return to Rakhine,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia.
Apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar
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.
It is unlikely that any of those demands will be met.
Human Rights Watch has called on Myanmar and Bangladesh to halt the planned repatriations, saying the government, “has taken no action to improve conditions or address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.”
Thousands of Rohingya still living in Rakhine State are confined to camps or villages, their movements are heavily restricted and they have little or no access to food, healthcare, and education.
Some 130,000 are still living in what has been described as “open-air prisons” after a previous bout of ethnic violence in 2012.
Amnesty International said the military still tightly controls access the state and a “telecommunications blackout on northern and central Rakhine” was recently imposed. International humanitarian agencies, NGO workers and journalists are routinely blocked from the area.
Adding to the unstable conditions for any returnees is ongoing fighting between Rakhine rebels, the Arakan Army, and the Myanmar military, which has displaced around 30,000 people in Rakhine since the beginning of 2019, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.