Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled Myanmar, citing rape, murder and arson, will not be forcibly repatriated, Bangladesh‘s Rohingya Relief and Repatriation Commissioner has said.
“No one will be forced back to Myanmar,” Abul Kalam told Al Jazeera.
Bangladesh is scheduled to send back an initial group of 2,260 Rohingya from 485 families, in line with a bilateral plan agreed by the two governments in October.
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But the move has been opposed by the United Nations’ refugee agency and aid groups who say the long-persecuted minority cannot be forced back, causing confusion over whether the repatriations would go ahead.
“They survived atrocities so it’s natural they fear to go back,” Kalam said.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh last year to escape a brutal army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, accusing government soldiers and local Buddhists of massacring families, burning hundreds of villages and carrying out mass gang rape.
Myanmar denies the allegations, saying security forces were battling armed rebels.
When asked whether the Rohingya – the majority of whom reside in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar – would be guaranteed a “safe and dignified” return, Kalam said: “Everything is done as per the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar. I hope the Myanmar authority will keep their words.”
The terms of the repatriation deal, however, have never been made public.
People do not want to go back to Myanmar due to safety concerns
The plan to begin returning the Rohingya to Myanmar comes just days after UN investigators warned of an “ongoing genocide” against the largely Muslim minority.
Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said beyond mass killings, the conflict included the ostracisation of the population, prevention of births and widespread displacement in camps.
Earlier this week, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plan, saying it violated international law.
“We are witnessing terror and panic among those Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will,” she said.
“Forcibly expelling or returning refugees and asylum seekers to their home country would be a clear violation of the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids repatriation where there are threats of persecution or serious risks to the life and physical integrity or liberty of the individuals.”
‘Rohingya flee camps to forests’
The Rohingya themselves have said they are terrified of returning to the Buddhist-majority country.
“People do not want to go back to Myanmar due to safety concerns,” Foyazullah, a 43-year old Rohingya living in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“The people in charge of the camps are harassing people. As a result, many families have fled and are hiding in nearby forests.”
In an open letter to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi late last month, a group of Rohingya refugees listed 10 demands, including receiving compensation and reparations, and said the beleaguered community would return only when its conditions were met.
Once hailed as a champion in the fight for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced intense scrutiny over her response to the Rohingya crisis.
She has been stripped of a series of international honours, with the latest coming on Tuesday when Amnesty withdrew its highest award citing her “indifference” to the plight of the Rohingya.
Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor at Dhaka University, told Al Jazeera that there was mounting concern the Rohingya were still “not welcome on Myanmar’s soil”.
“I have seen reports that say conditions in Myanmar are still not suitable for return,” he said. “This obviously raises concern.”
In the days leading to Thursday’s expulsion, Human Rights Watch reported that Bangladesh had deployed its army to the camps, heightening the refugees’ fear of return.
“The Bangladesh government will be stunned to see how quickly international opinion turns against it if it starts sending unwilling Rohingya refugees back into harm’s way in Myanmar,” Bill Frelick, the group’s refugee rights director, said in a statement.
“That Dhaka deployed its army into the camps is a red flag that this terrified community is not willing to return.”
Myanmar’s government has trumpeted every occasion where a Rohingya family has returned, however many fear returning to the country without guaranteed rights such as citizenship, access to healthcare and freedom of movement – rights that were denied to them long before last year’s crackdown.
The Rohingya are not considered one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.
Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, said Myanmar was trying to forcibly relocate the Rohingya to avoid being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In September, the ICC ruled it could prosecute Myanmar for alleged crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, an unprecedented decision that could expose the country’s politicians and military leaders to charges.
“They think that allowing people back to Myanmar will help them,” Nay San said. “However, they are not fulfilling any demands made by the refugees.”
Additional reporting by Faisal Mahmud in Cox’s Bazar