Bangladesh Declines to Start Repatriation of Rohingya amid Protests

By Muktadir Rashid   15 November 2018

DHAKA—Bangladeshi authorities have yet to start repatriation of the first group of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar from Unchiprang camp in Cox’s Bazar amid protests and a lack of willingness among the refugees to leave their camps.

After waiting for a day and bringing five buses to carry the Rohingya to the departure area, Bangladeshi officials said they could not be cruel to the “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.”

“We cannot forcefully send them back as we want them to volunteer. We cannot be cruel with them,” Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told The Irrawaddy on Thursday evening after a day of trying to persuade them to return.

He said they even asked the refugees to pay preliminary visits to the facilities prepared by the Myanmar government for the Rohingya but none cooperated with Bangladeshi officials.

Several hundred Rohingya joined a protest at the camps as the Bangladeshi authorities brought five buses to carry 27 Rohingya families from Unchiprang to the departure point in Teknaf to start repatriation to Myanmar.

During the demonstration in Unchiprang, the Rohingya were seen holding handwritten placards in English. “We never return to Myanmar without citizenship and our rights,” read one placard held by a youth. Another teenager was seen holding a sign that said in English: “We want justice”.

Rohingya leaders in the vicinity alleged that they were under intense pressure from Bangladesh authorities to convince fellow Rohingya to leave, but none showed a willingness amid the protests.

Unchiprang Rohingya community leader Mohammad Yusuf told The Irrawaddy they wanted to return home but were not convinced by the “words” of the Myanmar authorities during the last discussion they held with a Myanmar delegation in the Kutupalang camp in Cox’s Bazar on Oct. 31.

Mohammad Yusuf said that until their citizenship and security, among other rights, were confirmed, they would not return.

“The Myanmar authorities already have our names in their hands, so why do they need to verify us?” he said. “Our houses were gutted in 2012 and they announced those would be repaired. But it was not done.  We do not trust them [the Myanmar government] as they did not keep their promise.”

He said they had come to Bangladesh after Myanmar came up with the idea of issuing National Verification Cards (NVC) for Rohingya.

“If we have to receive the NVC again after we return, we will leave the camps here and will commit suicide by jumping in the river,” he said.

Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya among the native ethnic groups eligible for citizenship, and most Rohingya say the NVCs the government wants to issue them would only entrench their status as second-class residents.

On Oct. 31, Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials agreed to start repatriation of 2,200 individuals from Nov. 15.

The Rohingya leaders said 62 families were prepared by Bangladesh officials for repatriation on Nov. 15, 16 and 17.

“Our people here will remain tense until Nov. 17,” said Yusuf.

Earlier in the day, the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch issued an “immediate release” calling upon the Bangladesh government to halt the Rohingya repatriation plan, saying conditions would be unsafe “until Myanmar ensures rights and security”.

HRW said the Bangladesh authorities have deployed the army in refugee camps ahead of carrying out a plan to repatriate the first group of 2,200 Rohingya refugees which the Cox’s Bazar police described as joint security patrol around the camps.

“The Bangladesh government will be stunned to see how quickly international opinion turns against it if it starts sending unwilling Rohingya refugees back into harm’s way in Myanmar,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch.

The HRW statement also said that—under pressure from China—Bangladesh and Myanmar officials met in Dhaka on Oct. 30 and 31 to hold the third meeting of a joint working group to implement a bilateral repatriation agreement signed in November 2017.

Officials in Bangladesh said they had 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.

The UN refugee agency, 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.”

The UN agency has started an assessment of the Rohingya’s willingness to return.

The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka issued a press release on Thursday regarding the recent visit of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in Africa and Asia, Richard Albright, to the Kunapara border crossing, Rohingya camps including the UNHCR Transit Center, as well as a number of facilities in Cox’s Bazar.

In the press release, the US said it had provided more than US$345 million to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh since the start of the current crisis in August 2017.  In addition, the U.S. has contributed 40 per cent of the total contributions to date to the 2018 Joint Response Plan.

The release said that the U.S. is following developments closely regarding the joint plans of Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya.

“We agree with the UNHCR’s assessment that conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for returns,” the statement stated, adding, “Full access to Myanmar is needed to understand the conditions in the areas of return and to allow refugees and internally displaced persons to make an informed choice about returning.”

In his meetings with government officials, the statement said, Albright emphasized the value of go-and-see visits, as recommended by UNHCR, to enable Rohingya refugees to visit their villages of origin and the transit facilities in Myanmar so that they and their families can make informed choices about voluntary returns.