A second attempt to repatriate Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled a brutal military crackdown two years ago has failed, with no members of the minority group boarding buses to head back to Myanmar from Bangladesh, the United Nations refugee agency and officials from the two countries said Tuesday.
Myanmar had approved the return of about 3,450 Rohingya cleared from a list of more than 22,000 provided by Bangladesh, but no one took up the offer, saying that they first wanted guarantees for a safe and voluntary return along with full citizenship and other basic rights, which they have so far been denied in Myanmar.
“We had everything prepared just like before, but nobody turned up,” Soe Aung, administrator of Rakhine’s Maungdaw district told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They [Bangladesh] haven’t notified us about anything.”
“Anyway, we will keep everything ready at the reception center in case they show up,” he added, referring to the district's facility to process returning Rohingya refugees.
“None of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time,” UNHCR said in a statement.
Bangladeshi authorities confirmed that not one person boarded any of the five buses, two trucks and 10 minivans at the Shalbon refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district on Thursday – the scheduled start date to repatriate the refugees, whose names were on a list cleared to return by both Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“Not a single Rohingya wants to go back without their demands being met,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, the chief of Bangladesh’s refugee commission, told reporters in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
UNHCR interviewed more than 200 Rohingya families on Wednesday and Tuesday ahead of the scheduled start of repatriation. The refugees cleared by Myanmar to return belonged to 1,037 families, officials said.
But Rohingya leaders campaigned against repatriation, with many of them issuing a statement on Wednesday expressing concerns about how the list of returnees was created. They said they would not return without guarantees for their safety and assurances from Myanmar that they would be granted citizenship.
More than 700 refugees, who said they were from Camps 24, 26 and 27 in Cox’s Bazar, signed their names and affixed their thumbprints in the statement distributed to reporters.
“Many stated that they do hope to go home to Myanmar as soon as conditions allow and that assurances regarding their citizenship status, freedom of movement, and security in Myanmar could be provided,” UNHCR said.
Refugees remain apprehensive
Rohingya refugees remain apprehensive about returning to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are subjected to systematic discrimination, including denials of citizenship and access to basic services.
Myanmar’s government and powerful military have rejected the findings of U.N. and other independent investigations of the events of August 2017 and have done little to hold anyone accountable for the violent campaign to expel the Rohingya.
“We do not have trust towards them,” said Khin Maung, a Rohingya refugee who lives in one of the camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. “People are saying that they will not go back until our demands are met. And that is why we don’t think this latest repatriation program will succeed.”
Some rights groups said Myanmar officials have yet to resolve the problems that have led to the Rohingya crisis.
“Let’s say all these Rohingya come back to Myanmar, but where is the guarantee that the military would not commit rights violations again?” asked Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with Fortify Rights. “These people need guarantees for their safety.”
“The government itself might have some problems in handling this entire situation,” he added. “There will only be progress if the government tries to solve the problem with the help of the interested parties and the international community.”
At least two representatives of the Chinese embassy and one from the Myanmar embassy in Dhaka accompanied Kalam and Bangladeshi officials to Teknaf, the southernmost city of Bangladesh, to supervise the repatriation.
“We made all preparations to repatriate them … But none of the listed people showed interest in returning to their homeland,” Kalam said. “Bangladesh will not force any people to go back.”
Zheng Tianzhuo, director of the Chinese embassy’s political section, described the repatriation plans as “an ongoing process.”
“From, maybe, today and in the future, the first batch of [repatriation] could start any day, as long as they are willing, and as long as they are ready,” Zheng told reporters, referring to the refugees.
Presumably referring to Myanmar and Bangladesh, he said both of the “relevant stakeholders” had previously acknowledged that the prolonged stay of the Rohingya in the refugee camps would not benefit either of the neighboring countries.
Zheng and the other embassy officials did not respond to questions from reporters, but his statements offered a glimpse into Beijing’s participation in the repatriation process.
“China has already tried its best to persuade, or to convey the message, either from Bangladesh or from the international community, to the Myanmar side,” Zheng said.
“So I think what we need is just to encourage the Bangladesh government and the Myanmar government to keep the dialogue and communicate with each other in this regard,” he said.
First attempt fizzles
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement in November 2017 to repatriate Rohingya refugees who wanted to return to Rakhine state and who could prove that they had lived in the region.
But a previous attempt to return some of the Rohingya refugees in 2018 failed when no one showed up at the border amid protests by thousands in the Bangladesh camps against what they thought might amount to forced repatriations.
The Myanmar military carried out a violent crackdown on Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state in August 2017 after a group of Rohingya militants launched deadly attacks on police outposts.
The campaign, which included indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson, drove more than 740,000 members of the minority group across the border to Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling displacement camps.
Myanmar has largely denied any wrongdoing and has defended the brutal crackdown as a counterinsurgency against Rohingya militants.
About a year ago, a U.N.-mandated independent fact-finding mission that investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya called for the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
Latest figures from the Bangladeshi home ministry show that more than 1.2 million Rohingya are now living at makeshift shelters in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps, including 200,000 who fled earlier bouts of violence in Myanmar.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.