“I am scared, I was told that if we don’t go back our house here will be broken,” 60-year-old Rohingya refugee Rahima Khatun told CNN from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. “I would rather eat poison or jump from the boat and die rather than go back.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar are set to start the repatriation of 2,260 Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State on Thursday, despite fierce objection from international rights groups who fear those who return will continue to face persecution, or be confined to permanent displacement camps without freedom of movement or right to a livelihood.
Many Rohingya families on a list slated to be repatriated this week have refused to leave, with the memory of losing loved ones or suffering horrific abuse still fresh in their minds.
“We are scared to return to Myanmar because if we go they will kill us,” 51-year-old Rohingya refugee Majeda told CNN.
Bangladesh has repeatedly said that no one will be forced to go back to Myanmar, but with little information given to those living in a sprawling refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar, the process has been steeped in rumor, fear and uncertainty.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which is not facilitating returns but has assessed the willingness of those chosen to go back, said the conditions in Myanmar are not conducive for refugees to be repatriated.
More than 720,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh following a systematic campaign by the Myanmar military that began in August last year. A UN fact-finding mission described the assault, which included widespread reports of mass rape, murder and arson, as genocide. The Myanmar government has denied that its soldiers deliberately attacked unarmed Rohingya.
‘Terror and panic’
There was a heavier than usual army presence in the camp on Wednesday, with security forces stepping up checks on refugees and journalists.
As word spread that some refugees were on a list of more than 2,000 approved by Myanmar to return, several families went into hiding, fearing they would be forced back. Two others attempted to kill themselves, the UN said.
Mohammedul Hassan said his family fled to another camp after they found out they were included on the repatriation list and Bangladesh security forces told them to prepare to go back.
“Everyday at least 10 to 12 officers came and told us,” said 18-year-old Hassan. “My brothers were killed and I was shot. How can we go back to Myanmar without having justice?”
“This is a clear case where the Bangladesh authorities are failing to protect the refugee population, by allowing rumors to spread or fester, said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of human rights group Fortify Rights. “No refugee in Bangladesh should be forced into hiding because they think they will be forced back to Myanmar. Dhaka has responsibility to prevent that from happening.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday that “we are witnessing terror and panic” among the refugees “who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will,” and she called on the Bangladesh government to halt repatriations.
What awaits returning refugees?
“We were tortured, female members in our family were raped and children were burnt alive,” 39-year-old Rohingya refugee Dil Muhammad told CNN. “We don’t want to go back until our demands are accepted.”
It is unlikely that any of these demands will be met.
“This inhumane arrangement must not be allowed to become the status quo among any Rohingya refugees who may return to Myanmar,” Save the Children’s Asia Regional Director, Hassan Noor Saadi, said in a statement.
Myanmar officials said those who return to the country would stay in temporary “transit centers” before being moved into villages.
“Their stated addresses will be scrutinized and if found correct, they will be allowed to return to them,” Union Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Win Myat Aye, told reporters on Sunday. Those without homes would be settled in “temporary residences located in areas nearest to their original homes.”
Rohingya advocates question how refugees can go back to these areas as entire villages were destroyed by fire and expunged of its Rohingya population.
“Quite a lot of people are from places that don’t exist anymore. So where are they going to go?” said Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which advocates on Rohingya issues.
“Rohingya families were burnt out of their homes, their people watched loved ones get massacred, there was systemic rape, so just a few months later to demand that this population work with the authorities and particularly with respect to issues of identity, it’s not on the cards,” said Smith.
No meaningful changes
By restricting access to northern Rakhine, Myanmar has made it almost impossible for independent monitors, journalists or humanitarian aid groups to build a clear picture of the conditions Rohingya will return to.
Under a memorandum of understanding with the Myanmar government, the UNHCR and UN Development Fund (UNDP) were granted access to conduct initial assessments in 26 villages in Rakhine — a tiny portion of the state.
From reports of Rohingya who stayed following the crackdown, the picture is bleak.
“I have no job, no education. We can’t go anywhere, the government keeps us like prisoners,” 21-year-old Maung Amin told CNN by phone, because he was too scared to meet in person.
Compounding fears that security conditions are not right for refugees to return, there are ongoing reports of alleged killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday.
“Myanmar authorities have made no meaningful changes to the daily lives of Rohingya left in northern Rakhine and other parts of the state,” Fortify Rights’ Smith said.
Unwanted by the leaders of a country they cannot legally call their own, the Rohingya have a simple wish.
“I want justice and we want our land and our property so we (can) live in peace,” Rahima Khatun said.