Human rights groups warned on Friday that it’s still too early for Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh to return to Myanmar where their safety is not guaranteed and they will likely continue to face repression and discrimination, calling for a freeze on repatriations set to begin in mid-November.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments to immediately suspend a plan to return hundreds of thousands of refugees to northern Rakhine state, arguing that they will return “to dire conditions where their lives and liberty are at risk.”
“Myanmar’s government keeps talking about returns, but it has done nothing to allay the Rohingya’s fears of being returned to the same violence and oppression they fled,” said Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee rights director, in a statement.
“If Bangladesh moves forward on repatriations without the U.N., it will squander the international goodwill it has accrued over the past year as a host to Rohingya refugees,” he said.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement nearly a year ago to repatriate some of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled two brutal crackdowns by Myanmar forces in 2016 and 2017, though the program has been beset by delays.
Officials from both sides involved in a joint working group to carry out the terms of the agreement decided during meetings in Bangladesh earlier this week to begin returning refugees in mid-November, with an initial group of 2,260 Rohingya verified for return from a list of more than 8,000 refugees that was submitted to Myanmar in February.
Bangladesh selected names of refugees on its registration lists at random without consulting them to see if they wanted to return or have their personal details shared with Myanmar officials, HRW said, citing Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner.
Bangladesh officials also told HRW that they gave Myanmar a second list with more than 22,000 refugee names and addresses for verification.
Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that nothing has changed in Rakhine state.
“There are no guarantees of safety or protections for the Rohingya people to go back to Rakhine state at this time,” he said. “These are two governments that are working to try to force the Rohingya to go back, and it looks like a very bad arrangement that would result in more rights abuses if it is undertaken in its current form.”
London-based Amnesty International also blasted the plan to begin reparations in November.
“The perpetrators of atrocities remain at large, and those who would return will continue to face severe restrictions on their movements, difficulties accessing hospitals [and] schools, and no clear legal fate in the country,” Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher, told RFA.
“What’s more, there’s been no consultation with the refugees themselves and no guarantees they they’re going to be protected if they go back to Rakhine state where the authorities are still restricting humanitarian access,” she said.
‘Still living in fear’
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group of Southeast Asian lawmakers, also sid conditions are not yet ripe for the repatriations to begin.
The group has called on both Naypyidaw and Dhaka to stop plans for the return of the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and are subject to systematic discrimination and restrictions on their movements.
“This is a poorly thought-out plan,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker who leads the group and has been outspoken in his criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.
Myanmar must first ensure the protection and livelihoods of the Rohingya, said Santiago, who led a fact-finding mission to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh earlier this year.
“They [Rohingya refugees] were still licking their wounds; they are still living in fear,” he was quoted as saying. “We're not expecting them to go back to live in barracks and as squatters.”
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said that the returns should be voluntary, during a press briefing on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“It’s important to us that our efforts remain focused on steps that would improve the situation for the Rohingya refugees and to hold accountable all those responsible for this,” he said.
“We continue to call for accountability for those that were responsible, and we would look closely at any plans to ensure that it [repatriations] is, in fact, voluntary,” he said.
‘No law can harm them’
Myanmar has an agreement with the U.N.’s refugee (UNHCR) and development (UNDP) agencies to help with the voluntary return and reintegration of displaced Rohingya and to assess conditions in Rakhine state for those contemplating returns.
But UNHCR said that conditions are still not conducive for returns.
“It is critical that returns are not rushed or premature,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told Reuters news agency on Oct. 30.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement who is in charge of the repatriation program, said the government has no intention of harming refugees who return.
“The government has been working according to the law on their behalf, and there is no law that can harm them,” he said.
“State Counselor Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi said that anyone who violates the law will be taken action against, and that we also have rule of law, so there’s no reason to be concerned about their return,” he said.
Officials are working on preventing communal tension and problems from arising between ethnic Rakhine Buddhist and Muslim communities when the refugees return to northern Rakhine state, Win Myat Aye said.
Earlier this week, Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited the Kutupalong refugee camp where Rohingya refugees handed over a letter of demands addressed to Aung San Suu Kyi, outlining their position before some of them return to Myanmar.
They demanded that the government accept the Rohingya as an official Myanmar ethnic group, restore their full citizenship rights, and establish an international security mechanism to protect them after they return.
Reported by Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.