As refugees chosen for repatriation hide, protesters in Bangladesh camp demand Myanmar citizenship first
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees shout slogans as they protest the effort to repatriate them at the Unchiprang camp in Bangladesh on Thursday. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN/REUTERS
Rohingya refugees refused Thursday to leave their camps in Bangladesh and return to Myanmar, which violently expelled them last year, indicating the apparent failure of the nations’ first concerted effort to begin repatriations.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed last month to start large-scale repatriations of the displaced Rohingya on Thursday, with Myanmar saying it would allow some 2,200 to return. Rights groups, the U.S. government and the United Nations have criticized the plan.
By 2 p.m. Thursday, when Bangladeshi authorities said the operation would begin, the buses that they had prepared to carry refugees to the border sat empty, according to a Rohingya activist in one of the camps. Hundreds of Rohingya men had gathered in the Unchiprang refugee camp to protest the move, with leaders chanting slogans opposing repatriation. They held signs that said, “We want justice” and “We never return to Myanmar without our Rohingya rights.”
“Everyone is terrified of being repatriated,” said Khin Maung, a Rohingya refugee and activist who fled last year’s violence along with more than 700,000 others. He wasn’t involved in Thursday’s protests.
Until their expulsion last year, many of the mostly Muslim Rohingya had lived for generations in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they were denied citizenship and widely regarded as illegal immigrants. Despite evidence of what the U.S. has described as ethnic cleansing, Myanmar’s government has denied committing large-scale atrocities and says its military operations in Rakhine state were aimed at rooting out terrorism.
In recent days, Rohingya whom authorities had selected for repatriation gave Bangladesh authorities the slip by fleeing to friends’ and relatives’ houses, or running into the forests that surround the camps, according to Rohingya refugees. Those slated for return didn’t volunteer to go back but were chosen at random by the Bangladeshi authorities, according to Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian group, citing a conversation with Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief commissioner. Bangladesh pledged that it wouldn’t force any Rohingya to return. “Bangladesh seems unwilling to force people back and very few, if any, want to go,” said a Western official monitoring the situation.
Early Thursday, as it was becoming clear that no Rohingya were willing to return to Myanmar, Bangladeshi officials organized a meeting with Rohingya community leaders to understand why. The response: They didn’t want to be sent home unless they received citizenship and guarantees of safety, said Mr. Khin Maung. Myanmar has promised returning Rohingya a form of identity that falls short of citizenship, which Rohingya reject and say would cement their second-class status.
The U.N. says it continues to receive reports of arbitrary killings and arrests of Rohingya in Myanmar, and that it isn’t safe for Rohingya to return. Already, two elderly Rohingya men in Bangladesh had attempted suicide rather than face forced repatriation, the U.N. said this week.
Nonetheless, Bangladesh and Myanmar have said they intend to go ahead with the plan, backed by China, which has pushed for swift repatriations as a way to resolve the crisis. In September, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, China announced an agreement with Bangladesh and Myanmar in which the three countries agreed to begin repatriations “as early as possible,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website.
A Western official familiar with the situation said that Bangladesh’s government had gone along with the plan to placate China, partly because it wanted to see progress on resolving the refugee crisis before December elections. Bangladeshi ministers have pledged that all repatriations will be voluntary.
At a press conference Thursday, Myint Thu, an official at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that many Rohingya were hoping to be resettled in a third country like Canada. “It is their decision whether they wish to return to Myanmar or not,” he said. A Bangladeshi foreign-affairs minister didn’t respond to a request to comment.
The Myanmar minister responsible for implementing the repatriations wasn’t available to comment on Thursday; a Bangladeshi foreign-affairs minister didn’t respond to a similar request.
Now, however, Bangladesh is discovering how difficult it is to find willing Rohingya volunteers to head back to Myanmar. Many Rohingya have smartphones with internet connections, meaning they could quickly publicize any attempt by Bangladeshi security forces to forcibly expel them. In addition, Bangladesh, by participating in a process that Western governments view as flawed, risks damaging ties with countries it is relying on to provide aid to Rohingya refugees.
“So far in this story Myanmar is the bad guy and Bangladesh has been the good guy receiving the refugees,” said the Western official familiar with the situation. “They are starting to mess with that narrative.”
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