Rohingya children at a refugee camp in Ukhia, Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh.
Photograph: Rehman Asad/Barcroft ImagesRohingya children at a refugee camp in Ukhia, Coxs Bazar, Bangladesh.Photograph: Rehman Asad/Barcroft Images
Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to start the repatriation of Rohingya refugees next month, less than a week after UN investigators warned that a genocide against the Muslim minority was continuing.
More than 720,000 of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya people fled a brutal military crackdown in August last year, taking shelter in crowded camps in Bangladesh and bringing with them harrowing tales of rape, murder and arson.
At a meeting of the Bangladeshi foreign secretary, Shahidul Haque, and the Burmese foreign secretary, Myint Thu, on Tuesday, the two countries drew up a “very concrete plan” to start repatriations.
“We have shown our political will, flexibility and accommodation in order to commence the repatriation at the earliest possible date,” Myint Thu told reporters. Authorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar say more than 100 displaced Rohingyas have returned in recent months, but Bangladesh insists that the official process has not commenced.
Myint Thu’s comments were echoed by Haque, who said: “We are looking forward to starting the repatriation by mid-November.”
Rohingya families who fled Myanmar have been living in cramped, makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. Bangladesh initially proved very welcoming to those fleeing the violence, but the burden of looking after the refugees has become politically contentious in the already poverty-stricken country.
This is not the first time a date has been set for repatriation. A previous attempt, in November 2017, hit insurmountable roadblocks. A year on, Rohingya living in the camps have the same fundamental questions about their safety if they return.
Somsu Alom fled his village in northern Maungdaw in September last year after it was set alight by soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists, and now lives at Thaingkhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar with his wife and six children. He said his family was desperate to go home but “the situation in Rakhine is still unsafe” for Rohingyas.
“In smaller groups, Rohingyas are still fleeing to Bangladesh. We cannot understand how they have announced that repatriation of the Rohingya refugees will begin in November. It’s very disappointing for us.”
He described how those who had fled from Rahkine in recent weeks had recounted ongoing violence and a hostile environment for the Rohingya community still there.
“The Rohingya still are not allowed to move around in Rakhine freely. Occasionally, Rohingya are still being targeted in violence and the hardship and threats are still forcing the remaining Rohingya to flee. We cannot return home in the current situation,” said Alom.
There are also questions over the logistics of repatriation. Most of the Rohingya villages and houses were burned to the ground in the crackdown so it is likely they would be relocated to new residences built by the government in Rahkine. However, it is unclear whether they would have free movement or whether the homes would simply be “open air prisons”, as some human rights groups have warned.
Earlier this year Bangladesh reportedly handed Myanmar a list of 8,000 Rohingya refugees who they had processed and were ready for repatriation. Abul Faisal, 42, who fled his home in Rakhine’s Maungdaw town in September last year, said there was confusion about who had even been cleared for return.
“The authorities in Bangladesh collected names and other details of the Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar but we were never told why,” he said. “Most importantly, I have not heard of any Rohingya refugee who was asked if he or she wanted to return home to Myanmar. So we do not know how the local authorities got those names of Rohingya for repatriation.”
He emphasised that Rohingya demands for safety and citizenship had not been met by Myanmar authorities and described Rahkine as “dangerous” for the Muslim community. “The saddest fact is that neither Myanmar nor Bangladesh involved the Rohingya community in the negotiations for the repatriation.”
Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said last week that thousands of Rohingyas were still fleeing to Bangladesh amid discrimination, and those who have remained “continue to suffer the most severe” restrictions and repression.
“It is an ongoing genocide that is taking place at the moment,” said Darusman.
Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN in June, which stipulated that certain conditions needed to be met in order for the repatriation of the Rohingya to take place, including the guaranteed security of the Muslim minority, and a pathway to citizenship.
Although the community has lived in Myanmar for generations, a 1982 law stripped them of their citizenship and made most of them stateless. No clear process for citizenship for the Rohingya has been demonstrated.
There is also still widespread discrimination against the Rohingya by Buddhist citizens in Myanmar, and they are widely referred to as “Bengalis” by the government, inferring they are interlopers in the country. A recent Guardian visit to Rahkine state showed that the Buddhist community leaders and citizens there still refer to the Rohingya as “terrorists” and made it clear that “no one wants them to come back”.
Myint Thu insisted the Myanmar government was working to eliminate such discrimination in Rakhine ahead of repatriation. “We have trained the police, different law and enforcement agencies in workshops – educating them against discrimination. Also, we have been raising awareness against such discriminations,” he said.
However, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic recently told the Guardian that the agency “does not believe that conditions are currently in place in Myanmar for voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees”.
Additional reporting by Jacob Goldberg
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