BANGKOK: Bangladesh’s decision on January 22 to delay the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma should be followed by suspending the bilateral plan, which threatens the refugees’ security and well-being, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
On January 16, Burma and Bangladesh announced an agreement that provides additional details on a plan that would repatriate over 770,000 mostly Rohingya Muslim refugees who left Burma’s Rakhine State since October 2016.
The majority fled a Burmese military campaign of ethnic cleansing that began in late August. Since January 19, hundreds of Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps have protested against plans to begin repatriations.
“Rohingya refugees shouldn’t be returned to camps guarded by the very same Burmese forces that forced them to flee massacres and gang rapes, and torched villages,” said Brad Adams, Asia director.
He said, “The repatriation plan appears to be a public relations ploy to hide the fact that Burma has not taken measures to ensure safe and sustainable returns.”
Burmese authorities have shown no ability to ensure the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees as provided by international standards, Human Rights Watch said.
On January 22, Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner said that repatriation had been postponed because, “The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps is remaining.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on January 16 that “The worst would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in Myanmar [Burma], keeping an artificial situation for a long time and not allowing for them to regain their normal lives.”
The plan announced by Burma and Bangladesh would repatriate over 770,000 Rohingya and several hundred Hindu refugees.
According to media reports and statements, the plan includes target numbers and timeframes for return, as well as the establishment of processing centres in Bangladesh and Burma. The governments agreed to repatriate at least 300 refugees per day, five days per week. It has been widely reported that the process is expected to run for the next two years. Putting quotas and deadlines on refugee returns reinforces the risk of forced refugee return.
Burmese state media reported on January 15 that three camps would be created in Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State to process and house returning refugees. Two camps in Taung Pyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya would be used to process refugees, while a camp in Hla Po Khaung would accommodate returning refugees.
State media reported, “The 124-acre Hla Po Khaung will accommodate about 30,000 people in its 625 buildings. Forty buildings will be completed by 25 January and 100 by 31 January. [E]ach building can accommodate 80 persons.”
The director general of Burma’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Ko Ko Naing told Reuters, “We are ready to accept them once they come back. On our part, the preparation is ready.”
Since August, Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 200 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Many said that they wish to go home but did not believe it was safe to return for the foreseeable future, or until their security, land, and livelihoods could be ensured.
The Burmese government has systematically oppressed the Rohingya Muslim population and discriminated against them on rights including freedom of movement and access to citizenship, health care, education, and livelihoods.
Over 120,000 Rohingya who fled ethnic cleansing in 2012 remain in supposedly “temporary” camps in central Rakhine State.
Adams said, “All indications suggest the planned Burmese camps for Rohingya will be open-air prisons”.
Protecting returning refugees will not be possible without significant monitoring efforts by international observers, Human Rights Watch said.
The government has largely rejected international recommendations to allow free access for aid agencies, the media, and rights observers, only allowing a few humanitarian groups to deliver aid in northern Rakhine State and denying access to independent journalists and rights monitors.
A UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said there was a dire situation in Maungdaw Township, where “large areas have been razed and flattened by bulldozers, most stores are shuttered, few people are on the streets, very few women and even fewer children.”
Bangladesh has sheltered hundreds of thousands of recently arrived refugees, attempted to provide for their immediate needs, and called on Burma to address the root causes of the displacement.
However, in the past, the Bangladeshi government has not respected the rights of Rohingya refugees. In the 1970s and 1990s, the government carried out forced repatriations of Rohingya refugees who had fled persecution and violence in Burma.In 1978, thousands of Rohingya refugees starved to death after Bangladeshi authorities reduced rations in camps to force refugees back. In the 1990s, Bangladesh carried out several rounds of mass deportations of Rohingya who were forced to “volunteer” to return.
Human Rights Watch urged Burma and Bangladesh to suspend and renegotiate the repatriation agreement because of numerous flaws that endanger refugees’ lives; the impossible timetable for voluntary, safe, and sustainable returns; and the failure to involve the UN refugee agency.