Yangon, Myanmar – Soldiers in refugee camps in Bangladesh have been accused of beating and intimidating Rohingya who refuse to take part in a controversial United Nations-backed scheme to provide them with new identity cards.
Earlier this month soldiers showed up at shelters in the Hakimpara camp in Cox’s Bazar to pressure people into signing up for the ID cards.
They began shoving people and telling them to assemble at a nearby security post, a witness told Al Jazeera. Many of the Rohingya assumed the soldiers were there to put them on a list to be sent back to Myanmar and ran away.
“The soldiers got angry and started to hit some people who had gathered nearby,” he said, speaking anonymously because he feared retribution. “Then they organised some people and explained the advantages of the smart cards.”
On a separate occasion this month, security forces gathered a group of 18 majhis – refugees who help run the camps – and slapped and hit some of them while telling them to instruct others to accept the scheme.
“I was hit on the face for not agreeing with the smart cards,” one man told Fortify Rights, an advocacy group working in the camps.
Another majhi told the organisation he was accused of encouraging other Rohingya to reject the cards. “The army officer threatened me saying he would force me back to Myanmar. They slapped me very hard.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “should be making strong public calls for the Bangladeshi authorities not to coerce Rohingya refugees into accepting smart cards”, John Quinley, a human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera.
The agency has failed to properly communicate with the Rohingya about the scheme, he added.
“That’s why UNHCR and Bangladesh are coming up with issues now and the Rohingya are sceptical of the smart cards – because they weren’t consulted in the first place.”
UNHCR said the cards will ensure the right of the Rohingya to “voluntarily return home” to Myanmar and improve access to services while they are in Bangladesh.
But many Rohingya reject the cards because they fear the biometric information will be shared with the Myanmar government if they are forcibly repatriated and they are angry at the UNHCR for failing to consult them about the scheme.
The reported beatings happened amid a wave of panic and chaos in the camps as Bangladesh appeared intent on pushing ahead with a plan to return thousands of Rohingya to Myanmar, just over a year after they fled a military campaign of murder, rape and arson that UN investigators say amounts to genocide.
Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, said the agency had worked with the Bangladeshi government to hold “numerous community meetings with refugees, including imams, elders, and teachers,” in order to dispel “false rumours that the card is linked to repatriation”.
The agency also circulated a video outlining the card’s benefits, Gluck said.
She added the agency had received reports of a “small number” of cases of violence related to the smart card scheme and reported them to the authorities.
“Any violence and intimidation against refugees is unacceptable,” she said.
The Bangladeshi government has been widely praised for hosting more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled from Myanmar since August last year, but security forces in the camps operate with “total impunity”, said Quinley.
Apart from threats and beatings, Fortify Rights documented security forces looting property from Rohingya shopkeepers at the Balukhali camp late last month, he said.
One Rohingya man told Al Jazeera he has witnessed police taking away refugees’ phones in the camps.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, said he received video testimonies from 10 women and girls who were beaten at another camp early last month for refusing smart cards.
“Many refugees have suffered for refusing the smart card,” he said. “Many were beaten.”
He informed Bangladeshi officials and a UNHCR staffer about the allegations when he visited Bangladesh in mid-October, he added.
Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, said he was unaware of the allegations. “Actually, I am hearing about these kinds of incidents for the first time. I am not sure if such things actually happened,” he said.
Rohingya also object to the cards because they do not state their ethnicity.
Although UNHCR policy is not to include ethnicity on the cards to prevent discrimination, the Rohingya see asserting their identity as key to their survival.
Myanmar officially rejects the term Rohingya.
Gluck said the cards will help Rohingya access services and enable the agency to build a database that will make it easier to provide assistance.
The cards are also “an important milestone in contributing to securing the identity of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh”, she said.
The agency plans to finish the scheme at the end of this year, and so far has registered 27,000 people.
The initiative began in late June shortly after UNHCR and Myanmar struck a deal designed to pave the way for the eventual return of refugees.
The agreement has further undermined the relationship between the UNHCR and the Rohingya, who were not consulted about it and only learned of the details because they were leaked.
The deal offers no guarantee of citizenship or freedom of movement outside Myanmar’s Rakhine state, even though Rohingya say both are vital to ensure their safe return home.
Others remain suspicious of the UNHCR because of the controversial role the agency played in the forcible repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in the 1990s.