The official repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar was supposed to begin on November 15 through the Ghumdhum border crossing between the two countries.
So far, however, not a single refugee living in the crowded camps has elected to go back, putting Bangladeshi officials in an awkward position and the planned returns in limbo.
Bangladesh’s Refugees, Relief and Repatriation commissioner Abul Kalam, along with a team of government officials, tried to initiate the repatriation of over 2,000 refugees on Thursday.
They went from camp to camp trying to convince Rohingya people who had been listed for repatriation to return to Myanmar, from where 700,000 have fled violence the United Nations has subsequently said constitutes crimes against humanity.
Kalam first visited the Unchiprang camp, where most of the listed Rohingyas reside. There, he not only faced a reluctant group of returnees, but a vigorous protest of refugees waving placards and banners saying “We don’t want to die” and “We will not return until we get our citizenship back.”
“If we go back there, we will die,” said a crying refugee who referred to herself only as Sultana who cradled her eight-month-old baby. “They have killed our families. We don’t know what lies there [in Myanmar],” she said. Ali Ahmed, a Rohingya refugee in Jamtoli camp, told the official that he “would rather commit suicide than to go back to Myanmar.”
“We can’t and didn’t force them to go back,” said Commissioner Kalam. “Repatriation to their own home country was completely up to the refugees and they clearly weren’t convinced enough.”
Earlier this week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plan, saying it violated international law.
“We are witnessing terror and panic among those Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will,” she said.
“Forcibly expelling or returning refugees and asylum seekers to their home country would be a clear violation of the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids repatriation where there are threats of persecution or serious risks to the life and physical integrity or liberty of the individuals,” Bachelet said.
The UNHCR has conducted interviews of Rohingya refugees listed for repatriation and the responses they receive are being recorded, according to Kamal.
“Out of 485 refugee families listed for repatriation, the UNHCR has so far conducted interviews of 67 families. It seems that almost all of them have shown their reluctance to go back to Myanmar,” he said.
UNHCR spokesperson Firas Al Khateeb said: “We don’t believe that circumstances are conducive for [their] return to Myanmar, and for any return to happen it has to be in safety, with dignity and in a voluntary manner.”
“We are also in the process of assessing (the willingness to return) of refugees as requested by the government of Bangladesh, and based on the Memorandum of Understanding signed earlier this year,” Khateeb said, referring to an agreement that paved the way for the repatriation plan.
Facilitated by China, Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials met in Dhaka on October 30 and 31. It marked the third meeting of a joint working group tasked with carrying out a bilateral repatriation agreement signed in November 2017.
Following the meeting, representatives announced that they had a “very concrete plan” to begin repatriations in mid-November, with the first round to include 2,260 Rohingya from 485 families.
According to Myanmar officials, the plan calls for 150 refugees to be received each week, starting on November 15, at the Nga Khu Ya reception center before being transferred to the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp in the northern region of Rakhine state.
In recent weeks, Bangladeshi authorities built makeshift offices inside the camps and explained to the refugees that similar shelters were being built by the Myanmar government across the border. Officials from the Bangladesh Army and the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) also cordoned a part of the camps where Rohingya refugees listed for repatriation resided.
But as Bangladeshi authorities seemed set to move the refugees towards the border, news of Rohingya fleeing from one camp to the other in fear of repatriation put a spanner in the works. A Guardian report quoted Nur Islam from Jamtoli refugee camp saying: “The authorities repeatedly tried to motivate the ones on the returning refugee list to go back. But instead they were intimidated and fled to other camps.”
That sparked the condemnation of prominent rights groups. Bill Frelick, refugees rights director of US-based Human Rights Watch, said, “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.”
“That Dhaka deployed its army into the camps is a red flag that this terrified community is not willing to return,” he added.
Kalam, however, told Asia Times that they were conducting the repatriation process in a “transparent” manner. “We wanted them to make an informed decision. We didn’t segregate them from other refugees. We also want the repatriation to happen in clear daylight, not in the middle of the night,” he said.
Kalam said that when they discovered that no refugees wanted to go back voluntarily, they did not ask anyone to leave the camp. “We have kept all our arrangements ready for repatriation up until 4 pm on Thursday. As you can see, we have no one to repatriate, (so) we are closing our day’s operation.”
Kalam said that they would keep asking the listed families whether they feel secure to return.
Others doubt that will happen any time soon. Delwar Hossain, professor of international relations of Dhaka University, said that it is quite natural for the refugees to refuse to go back.
“Myanmar has built transit camps and has been in talks with the Bangladesh government for the repatriation. But the ground reality is quite different. These are people who had seen unspeakable violence erupted on them reportedly by the Myanmar army.”