Myanmar and Bangladesh are to make a fresh attempt to begin repatriating the Rohingya Muslims who fled ethnic cleansing in Rahkine state in 2017, though the community say they have not been consulted.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled over to border to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown in Rahkine state which saw villages razed, women raped and thousands killed. A UN fact-finding mission declared the violence had “genocidal intent”.
A document from the UN agency, UNHCR, sent to the Rohingya community to inform them of the repatriation plan said: “The Government of Myanmar has confirmed that 3,450 Rohingya refugees are eligible to return. This is a welcome first step as it acknowledges that your right to return is recognized.”
According to UNHCR, the Bangladesh government shared the names of Rohingya approved for repatriation with the UN agency on 8 August.
“The Government requested UNHCR to speak with these refugees to determine whether they wish to return. In this way, UNHCR will seek to ensure that any return is voluntary,” said the agency document.
A senior Bangladeshi official said the new effort was a “small-scale” repatriation plan, adding that nobody would be forced to return.
“Bangladesh wants nothing but a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to media.
However, Mohammed Eleyas, a Rohingya activist with the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, said refugees had not been consulted about the process.
This is the second attempt to begin repatriation, after a first effort in November failed when none of the 2,000 Rohingya approved for return agreed to go back to Myanmar voluntarily.
Over one million Rohingya are now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar but most fear return to Myanmar over concerns they would be placed in large government camps, described as “open air prisons”, with no freedom of movement or basic rights.
While the UN conditions for the return of the Rohingya is that it is “voluntary, safe and dignified” and that their rights and freedoms will be secured once they are back in Myanmar, there is no evidence to show this will be the case.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found “no evidence of widespread preparation for Rohingya refugees to return to safe and dignified conditions.” Instead it revealed that the burning and destruction of Rohingya villages by security forces had continued until this year, and that there were no homes for the Rohingya to return to, just large-scale camps, and six new military bases.
The hostile conditions in Rahkine have also escalated in recent months, with government troops fighting insurgents from the Arakan Army, a mainly Buddhist ethnic armed group fighting for greater autonomy.
A UN investigator said in July that human rights violations against civilians by security forces and insurgents may amount to fresh war crimes, citing reports of deaths during army interrogations.