U.S. Fears ‘Premature’ Return of Rohingya to Myanmar on Eve of Resettlement

This week, the first large-scale repatriations are set to begin since the military launched a brutal campaign against the ethnic minority


Rohingya refugees take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, to mark the one-year anniversary of their exodus, Aug. 25. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN/REUTERS


The U.S. voiced concern about Myanmar’s plans to repatriate Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh, saying conditions weren’t yet conducive for their return and noting those who had remained in the country continued to face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement.


Myanmar has said it plans to receive hundreds of returning Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh beginning this week. It would be the first large-scale repatriations since Myanmar’s military launched a brutal campaign against the ethnic minority in August last year.


On Sunday, Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, said as many as 300 Rohingya would return daily from Bangladesh starting about Nov. 15, until 2,251 refugees had returned in total. He said the Rohingya would be processed and checked for contagious diseases, before being sent to transit camps and given clothes and rations.


The push for repatriation comes as international pressure grows on Myanmar to resolve the refugee crisis. Neighboring Bangladesh has accused Myanmar of finding excuses to delay taking refugees back, and China and Singapore have called for progress on returning them. On Friday, a press release came out from China’s Foreign Ministry applauding the repatriation steps—the broad details of which Myanmar outlined in October—saying: “This will create a good start for dealing with this complex historical issue and accumulate experience for the next step of repatriation.”


While regional powers are eager for refugees to return, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that it doesn’t believe conditions in Myanmar are conducive for a safe return, and that Rohingya should be allowed to first see the conditions of their homes before deciding whether to resettle there permanently.


The U.S. government said Monday it was worried the planned repatriation was premature. “We have engaged both governments [Myanmar and Bangladesh] at the highest levels to express our serious concerns about premature returns, and to emphasize that, consistent with international practice, returns must be informed, voluntary, safe, dignified,” said a State Department spokeswoman. “One key factor is that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still living in Rakhine state continue to face severe restrictions on freedom of movement.”


Shahriar Alam, a Bangladesh foreign-affairs minister, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.


Rohingya activists worry that the refugees in Bangladesh will be forced to return to Myanmar against their will. They say some Rohingya slated for repatriation have fled into the forests surrounding the refugee camps to avoid being sent back. “This is a bad idea. This is bad news for Rohingya,” said Ro Nay San Lwin, a coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, an activist group.


On Monday, Amnesty International said that it had stripped Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, of its prestigious Ambassador of Conscience award over her failure to speak up for the Rohingya.


Ms. Suu Kyi led Myanmar’s democracy movement starting in the late 1980s, spending 15 years under house arrest for her defiance of the generals who then ruled Myanmar. However, her humanitarian luster has faded since taking power in Myanmar in 2016, as her office has defended the military’s crackdown against the Rohingya.


“Her denial of the gravity and scale of the atrocities means there is little prospect of the situation improving for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in limbo in Bangladesh or for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in a statement.


Ms. Suu Kyi couldn’t be reached immediately for comment. In an interview with Japanese news outlet NHK in October, Ms. Suu Kyi said: “With regard to honors and prizes and so on, it’s very much up to those who offer them to decide what they do with it. It’s not for us to say we want it or don’t want it.”


More than 100,000 Rohingya continue to live in internal-displacement camps in Myanmar. Many of the roughly 470,000 Rohingya in Myanmar who live outside those camps have limited freedom of movement , making it difficult for children to go to school or for farmers to access their fields, according to the U.N.


Rohingya are a mainly Muslim ethnic minority living in western Myanmar who have endured decades of discrimination in the majority-Buddhist country. Despite living in Myanmar for generations, they are widely regarded as illegal immigrants, and most have been denied citizenship. Last year, Myanmar’s military launched attacks that the U.N. estimated killed 10,000 Rohingya and destroyed dozens of Rohingya villages, in response to attacks by Rohingya militants. Myanmar’s military has denied committing large-scale atrocities.


Myanmar’s government says Rohingya who return to Myanmar and are willing to accept a form of state identification that is short of citizenship will be allowed to travel in Maungdaw, a township in the western part of Rakhine state. Those who accept this identity card will have the chance to return to their lands, and rebuild their homes if they were destroyed in last year’s violence, Mr. Win Myat Aye said. However, many Rohingya reject the proposal, arguing they should be entitled to full citizenship from the outset. They have said Myanmar’s proposal would mean accepting a second-class status.


The 2,251 Rohingya cleared to return in November represent just a tiny portion of the more than 720,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh after last year’s violence. Mr. Win Myat Aye said that in total about 5,000 Rohingya have been cleared to return to Myanmar so far—less than 1% of the total who fled across the border in the crisis.


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