THE forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar was due to begin yesterday, despite warnings from the United Nations and aid agencies that the conditions for their return had not been met.
Last weekend, officials in Myanmar announced that Bangladesh had said that repatriations would begin yesterday, and that refugees were to be sent back in groups of at least 150 per day.
The principle of repatriation was agreed months ago by Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned in a statement on Monday that any repatriation should be only on the basis of a “free and informed decision by refugees, on an individual basis”.
Mr Grandi said that refugees must first be allowed to visit their homes in Rakhine state to determine whether they felt able to “return there in safety and dignity”. He said, however, that he did not believe that current conditions in Rakhine would allow their safe return.
He said: “The responsibility to improve those conditions rests with Myanmar. Although UNHCR does not believe current conditions in Rakhine state are conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh, we remain committed to supporting the government of Myanmar’s efforts to create such conditions.
“And we remain deeply grateful to the government of Bangladesh as it continues to generously host Rohingya refugees until they can voluntarily return to Myanmar in safety and dignity.”
Fears of forced repatriations among the estimated 706,000 Rohingya in the biggest refugee camp in the world, Cox’s Bazar, have led to reports in the media of suicides, and some people fleeing camps so that they cannot forcibly be sent back.
Forty-two aid agencies and charities, including Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Vision, issued a statement last Friday warning that any repatriation was dangerous and premature: “Refugees have consistently told us that they want to return to their own homes and places of origin, or to places of their choice. They want guarantees that they can enjoy equal rights and citizenship. They want assurances that the extreme human-rights violations they have suffered will stop, and those responsible for the violence they fled will be brought to justice.
“They do not want to return to conditions of confinement, with no freedom of movement or access to services and livelihoods. They fear that these conditions will become permanent, like the situation in central Rakhine state, where 128,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been confined to camps, with no freedom of movement, for over six years.
“Most of all, refugees tell us that they are afraid. They fled to Bangladesh to seek safety, and they are very grateful to the government of Bangladesh for giving them a safe haven. However, they are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned to Myanmar now, and distressed by the lack of information they have received.”
More than 700,000 Rohingya have crossed over the border from Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August 2017, fleeing a violent crackdown by the military and the Buddhist locals, during which their villages were razed to the ground, women were raped, and thousands were killed. The UN has described the violence against them as “ethnic cleansing”.
The head of humanitarian programmes in Asia for the Roman Catholic aid agency CAFOD, Giovanna Reda, has just returned from Cox’s Bazar, where, she said, conditions for refugees were now improving, thanks to the work of NGOs and the UN, as well as the Bangladeshi government.
Any return that was not in line with the three principles of dignity, safety, and being voluntary should not be supported by the international community, she said. “We want evidence that these basic conditions are being met. When these conditions are met, then the Rohingya, like any refugees, will want to return.”