Rohingya Muslims on Monday staged a protest in several refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh against the United Nations refugee agency for refusing to identify their ethnicity as Rohingya on smart cards issued to them.
The protesters also urged aid groups not to share their biometric data and copies of documents with Myanmar officials who they fear might use the information against them.
Rohingya leaders in the sprawling settlements in the Ukhia area of Cox’s Bazar district where the cards are being issued also called for a three-day work strike in a bid to force the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to include their ethnic identity on the smart cards it has been issuing to them, according to a statement they released.
Markets and shops stopped operating in camps observing the strike, and Rohingya who work for NGOs and the UNHCR and as teachers, health care workers, and builders refused to do their jobs.
They are insisting that the smart cards, which identify them as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals,” specify that they are ethnic Rohingya.
Myanmar says the Rohingya are “Bengalis” — illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — and systematically discriminates and denies them citizenship, though many have lived in Rakhine state for generations.
The refugees also called on officials and aid agencies to stop collecting their biometric and family information and to allow them to speak with UNHCR officials about their demands.
“We are very worried about the biometric data that UNHCR wants to collect,” the statement said, according to a Reuters report.
“We believe UNHCR can share this data for repatriation with the Myanmar government, and the Myanmar government can use it to label us as ARSA member[s] or as ‘Bengali foreigners’ like in the past, or to make trouble for our families,” it said.
The Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine state in August 2017, triggering a campaign of violence by the Myanmar military that targeted the Rohingya.
The UNHCR says the data are not being collected to give to Myanmar officials for planned repatriations, but rather for a verification process that will ensure the refugees can access services in Bangladesh, Reuters reported.
Khin Maung, a Rohingya who lives at the Thaingkhali refugee camp, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that none of the Rohingya refugees wants the ID cards.
“If we have to use cards, we need to be mentioned as Rohingya on them,” he said.
The UNHCR and human rights groups have warned that conditions are not yet ripe for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, where their safety is not guaranteed and where they will likely continue to be persecuted.
On Sunday, about 100 protesters, including Buddhist monks, marched through Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe to demonstrate against the planned repatriations of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, Agence France-Presse reported.
Blame it on the INGOs
Prior to the latest protest and strikes in the camps, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay accused international NGOs (INGOs) of putting their own business interests ahead of those of the refugees by trying to keep them in the Bangladeshi camps.
“In Bangladesh, there is a big market for food and other stuff for these refugees,” he said during a government news conference on Nov. 23. “The INGOs also don’t want these refugees to return home, so they can work on their projects and make money as long as [they] stay there.”
“There are a lot of INGO projects such as ones for women and children,” he said. “It is a really big business there. That’s why the INGOs are urging the refugees not to return. That is where the problem exists.”
But Alo Hussan, a refugee from Kutupalong refugee camp, pointed out that INGOs are providing assistance and support for the Rohingya because they arrived in Bangladesh with nothing when they fled from Myanmar.
“I really question why the Myanmar government said the support from INGOs is a business,” he said.
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh a year ago to repatriate some of the more than 720,000 Rohingya who fled Rakhine state during a brutal crackdown by state security forces. The much-delayed program is now set to get underway in January after a national election in Bangladesh in December.
“We don’t want to wait until December or any other date,” Alo Hussan said. We will return home tomorrow if the Myanmar government agrees to our demands.”
The Myanmar government has said that it has been ready to take back refugees since Jan. 23, but it has blamed delays on Bangladesh not fulfilling its part of the agreement.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in late October to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees, but none of the first group of 2,200 approved for return showed up at the border for processing on the appointed day amid protests in the camps in Bangladesh, with the Rohingya demanding justice, the restoration of their citizenship rights, and access to basic services before going back.
Myanmar’s agreement with Bangladesh, as well as a memorandum of understanding the country signed with the UNHCR and the United Nations Development Programme to assist with the repatriation of refugees, specifies that the Rohingya must return voluntarily.
A report issued by U.N. investigators in late August detailed atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown and called for those responsible to be prosecuted for “genocidal intent.”
The Myanmar government has largely denied the atrocities and called its “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine state a necessary counterinsurgency against Muslim “terrorists.”
Reported by Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Trsanslated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.