Halt Rohingya Returns: Ensure Refugees’ Security, Basic Rights, Equal Access to Citizenship

(New York) – The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments should suspend plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees until returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified, Human Rights Watch said today. With new repatriations set to start on August 22, 2019, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps protested that they will face the same violence and oppression in Myanmar that they fled.

Myanmar authorities have verified 3,454 people for an initial round of returns from a list of 22,000 submitted by Bangladesh authorities. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and Bangladesh authorities said they are seeking to confirm that these refugees wish to return.

“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Bangladesh has been generous with the Rohingya – though conditions in the camps have been difficult – but no refugee should feel compelled to return to a place that isn’t safe.”

After the UN began the consultation process, many Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that while they wished to go home to Myanmar eventually, current conditions made their return unsafe. Many of the refugees on the initial lists refused to attend the consultations.

“We know that thousands of Rohingya back in Myanmar are still in detention camps,” one refugee told Human Rights Watch, referring to an estimated 125,000 Rohingya who have been confined to open-air camps in central Rakhine State since 2012. “If those people are released and return to their villages, then we will know it is safe to return and will go back home.”

A refugee from camp 26 who was on the list with six family members said, “We do not want to go back to Myanmar where so many of our loved ones did not even get a funeral, and ended up in mass graves after they were killed.”

A woman living in camp 24 said: “This is the second time I have fled here in Bangladesh. My husband was killed by the [Myanmar] military.… I don’t want to go back because I don’t want to my grandchildren to face the same risk that I did.”

The refugees held protests after the repatriation plan was announced demanding that those responsible for atrocities be held to account. They also called on the Myanmar government to guarantee full citizenship rights and return land and properties to the refugees, including compensation for homes and businesses that the military burned.

More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They joined about 200,000 refugees who had fled previous waves of violence and persecution. A UN-backed fact-finding mission found “sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw [armed forces] on charges of genocide.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar previously attempted repatriation in November 2018, initiated without consulting UNHCR or the Rohingya. Refugees on the list for return went into hiding and refused to leave, fearing for their lives. In July 2019, Myanmar officials arrived at the sprawling refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar to discuss repatriation, but denied Rohingya citizenship claims and instead promoted a digitized National Verification Card (NVC) process.

A refugee from camp 27 said, “The Myanmar delegation visited last month and made many assurances, but we would be foolish to return now because then they will never fulfill our rights.”

Bangladesh authorities said they are preparing for repatriation. “Repatriation may start any moment,” Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said recently. “In the next few weeks we shall encourage the Rohingyas to go back.” Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar’s Disaster Management Department, said that reception centers had been set up at Nga Khu Ya and Taung Pyo Letwe in Rakhine State to receive 300 people a day, and that the refugees would initially be placed at a temporary camp in Hla Poe Kaung before they are sent back to their villages. The “reception centers” and “transit camp” are surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fences and security outposts, similar to the physical confinement structures in the central Rakhine camps.

UN officials said they have not had enough time to survey the refugees who have been cleared for repatriation to find out whether they want to return to Myanmar. UNHCR as well as Bangladesh authorities have asserted that any returns will be voluntary.

A refugee who was called by Bangladesh camp authorities to meet with UNHCR said she told the refugee agency that she and her family do not want to return to Myanmar yet. Holding a leaflet with a list of demands, she said:

They [Myanmar authorities] always abuse us in different ways. Why would we go back to that country to endure the same cycle of abuse. If we are recognized as Rohingya, given citizenship, our lands, and assurance of freedom of movement, then no one will need to send us back. We will go ourselves.

Some Hindu refugees said that they would like to return to Myanmar, but their names were not on the initial list. Shishu Pal Shil, the Hindu camp majhi (leader), told Human Rights Watch: “When we came to know about the repatriation of the Rohingya Muslims, I asked when our name will come in the list. He said possibly in the next round. We are always ready to go back to Myanmar.”

Conditions in Rakhine State are not conducive for voluntary, safe, or dignified repatriation of Rohingya. The remaining Rohingya population in Rakhine State is confined to camps and villages with no basic freedoms, subject to ongoing state persecution and violence. The Myanmar government has taken no action to improve conditions or address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

Since November 2018, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army armed group in Rakhine State has displaced at least 27,000 people. Since June, internet services have been shut down in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in neighboring Chin State where there is fighting between the Arakan Army forces and Myanmar military.

Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is bound under customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to a place where they would face persecution, torture, other ill-treatment, or death. Any repatriation plan should follow international standards and be developed with consultation and informed consent from Rohingya refugees, with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information about conditions in areas of return, including security conditions, assistance, and protection to reintegrate.

“Many Rohingya have said that they would like to return to Myanmar so long as they don’t suffer the same abuse, indignities, and atrocities they have endured in the past,” Ganguly said. “Bangladesh should not join this dangerous rush to send refugees back to conditions that they may be forced to flee again.”

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