DHAKA — Myanmar authorities have resumed using loudspeakers to urge the nearly 4,000 Rohingya taking shelter on a sliver of land between the border fences of Bangladesh and Myanmar to leave, sparking fresh panic among the refugees over their imminent future.
Local officials in Bangladesh said Myanmar has blared the message before.
“On Saturday morning they started the announcements again, asking us to leave the no-man’s land. The announcements come every hour,” Dil Mohamed, a community leader of the refugees, told The Irrawaddy.
He said the announcements, by the Myanmar Border Guard Police, state that the land belongs to Myanmar’s Maungdaw Township and that it is illegal under international law for them to stay there.
Since they began, Dil Mohamed said, Bangladeshi Border Guard officials have visited the frontier and Bangladeshi troops have been on heightened alert.
A Bangladeshi security official said Myanmar has gathered additional security forces along the border as well.
Lieutenant-Colonel Manzurul Hassan Khan, however, commander of the Bangladesh Border Guard’s Nainkhanchhari Battalion, said the situation along the border was normal on Sunday.
The resumption of the announcements follows a meeting in Dhaka on Thursday of a joint working group charged with overseeing the repatriation of the nearly 700,000 mostly Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since late August, when militant Rohingya attacks on security posts in Rakhine State triggered a military response the UN and US have both described as ethnic cleansing. It was the group’s second meeting since the two countries signed a repatriation agreement in November.
Unlike most of the refugees living in camps in Bangladesh, however, those taking shelter between the border fences have not been registered with authorities and often rely on the generosity of local Bangladeshi residents for food. Bangladeshi officials have repeatedly said they do not need to be registered.
Citing Bangladeshi officials, the New Age, a Dhaka-based daily, reported on Sunday that Myanmar is reticent to let the refugees return to their original villages in Rakhine and instead plans to resettle them in new, segregated villages far from their original homes.
“The Myanmar government has given no assurance of taking back the Rohingyas to their respective places of residence and villages,” the New Age quoted a senior official as saying after the joint working group meeting.
Article 2 of the repatriation agreement the countries signed in November states that Myanmar would encourage the refugees “to return voluntarily and safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice.”
To date Myanmar has approved for return 878 people from an initial list of 8,032 refugees willing to go back that Bangladesh handed over in February. None of them has yet to return.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh has been preparing new shelters on Bhashanchar island to ease the congestion in the existing refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
On Saturday, Bangladesh’s disaster management and relief secretary, Md Shah Kamal, said he expected about 100,000 refugees to be transferred to the island at the end of the rainy season in late June and that they would only be moved voluntarily.
The secretary was taking part in a drill to prepare refugees, aid agencies and authorities for the landslides and floods expected to hit the Cox’s Bazar camps until then.
On Sunday, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced that it had also distributed more than 2 million Vetiver grass plants among the refugees over the past two weeks to help reduce landslides and soil erosion in the hilly camps. In a statement, it said another 2 million would be distributed to non-governmental organizations working in the camps by the end of May.
The IOM said a bundle of 200 plants costs just over $1.50 and that it has also helped to get some of the grass planted with a cash-for-work program for some of the refugees and their host communities.
“We drew on Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology studies to learn lessons from other projects involving Vetiver grass and apply them here. The illustrations helped share that knowledge with people in a very practical way,” IOM site development coordinator Megan Genat said, according to the statement.
“It’s been really encouraging to see everyone getting involved,” she added. “The project has also helped in raising public awareness of the risks of soil erosion. We will be following up with a fuller analysis of the impact next month, but initial reports from our partners indicate it has been going very well and is proving popular with the refugee community.”
In the same statement, the IOM said it was also helping lay roads and access routes, improve drainage and build bridges and working with both the government and other aid agencies to prepare for the rains and respond to emergencies.