Bangladesh Pushes Ahead With Rohingya Repatriation Plans Despite Int'l Resistance

By Muktadir Rashid   13 November 2018

DHAKA — Bangladeshi authorities say they are making final preparations to start repatriating the first group of mostly Rohingya refugees to Myanmar this week despite persistent warnings from rights groups and aid agencies that conditions are not yet right for their return.

After nearly a year of planning, the two countries agreed last month to start repatriating the first group of 2,260 refugees — all verified as former residents of Myanmar — on Thursday.

Officials in Bangladesh said they have built two checkpoints along the border — one each for refugees returning by land or by water — where they will be handed over to Myanmar authorities.

Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told local media on Monday that his government has expedited preparations in order to begin the repatriations on Thursday.

The commissioner declined to speak with The Irrawaddy on Monday. But another Bangladeshi official working on the issue said the date was not yet set in stone and would be confirmed on Tuesday.

The official said authorities expect the refugees at first to feel upset about returning to Myanmar, where UN-mandated investigators accuse the military of unleashing a campaign of “genocidal intent” that has driven some 700,000 Rohingya across the border for shelter.

“We do understand their concerns … But soon everything will be normal,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

According to a report on Monday by the Dhaka-based daily New Age, Myanmar’s ambassador to Bangladesh, U Lwin Oo, said it might take 15 days to repatriate all 2,260 refugees.

Rohingya sheltering in the sprawling refugee camp of Cox’z Bazar, however, show little interest in returning to Myanmar unless they are guaranteed equal rights and say their lives back home would be unsustainable without them. Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya among the native ethnic groups eligible for citizenship, and most Rohingya say the National Verification Cards the government wants to issue them would only entrench their status as second-class residents.

“We want our citizenship rights and security,” said Shafi Ullah, a refugee and member of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights.

He said Rohingya should be guaranteed freedom of movement in Myanmar and that returnees should have all their property returned.

Bangladeshi rights activist Nur Khan Liton said the government was rushing into the repatriations and that Rohingya refugees were still not confident that they would be safe if they returned to Myanmar.

“I am concerned about whether the repatriation will be sustainable,” he said, warning that any missteps could leave not just Myanmar but also Bangladesh internationally isolated.

The United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, has been advocating for the voluntary and sustainable repatriation of the refugees to their places of origin or choice. It recently said that conditions in Myanmar were “not yet conducive for returns.”

After visiting the Cox’s Bazar camps on Sunday, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in Africa and Asia, Richard Albright, told reporters that repatriation should be voluntary, safe and dignified.

“We agree with the UNHCR. Right now the conditions on the ground in the areas of potential return are not adequate to support sustainable returns of the population,” he said.

The International Crisis Group says Bangladesh has effectively failed to consult with the refugees themselves on the repatriation plans and advised it to do so. It also claims that the government was being pressured by China to start sending the refugees back.

In a report released Monday, rights group Fortify Rights said Bangladesh should postpone repatriation until Rohingyas’ rights in Myanmar are restored. It alleged that Bangladeshi authorities in Cox’s Bazar were trying to pressure refugees into submitting their biometric data for ID cards by threating and assaulting camp leaders, raising concerns of possible forced returns.

“Refugee returns should always be safe, voluntary and dignified. Any mass return process at this point would be premature, effectively forced, and put Rohingya lives at risk,” said the group’s CEO, Matthew Smith.

On Nov. 1, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Bangladesh security forces gathered 18 Rohingya community leaders from a single refugee camp for a meeting at a nearby security post, according to Fortify Rights. It said some of the leaders told the rights group that Bangladeshi officers hit them and told them to instruct the refugees to accept the “smart cards” with their biometric data.

Bangladesh and the UNHCR began issuing the cards in June in a joint effort aimed at providing the refugees with secure IDs and better access to services and assistance.

Refugees told The Irrawaddy that the pending repatriations were fueling fear and rumors in the camps.

On the contrary, Abul Khair, officer-in-charge at the Ukhia police station in Cox’s Bazar, said the refugees were not afraid but excited about returning to Myanmar, where they expect their lives to improve.

Joseph Surja Tripura, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Bangladesh, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the agency would be assessing the list of 2,260 refugees to determine whether they actually volunteered to return to Myanmar. Only two day out from the scheduled start of the repatriations, however, he said the agency had yet to begin.