Bangladesh and Myanmar should drop plans to start repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State as they face a “high risk of persecution”, a top United Nations’ human rights investigator has warned.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed into Bangladesh from western Myanmar after a sweeping military crackdown in August 2017.
On October 30, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to begin the return of the refugees in mid-November but the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said conditions in Rakhine State were “not yet conducive for returns”.
“I urge the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to halt these rushed plans for repatriation,” Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said on Tuesday, calling on the country to grant the Rohingya their long-sought right to citizenship, freedom of movement and access to public services.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya a native ethnic group. Many in the Buddhist-majority country call the Rohingya “Bengalis”, suggesting they belong in Bangladesh.
Lee said Myanmar “failed to provide guarantees they [the Rohingya] would not suffer the same persecution and horrific violence all over again”.
The investigator said she had received credible information from the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, that “they are in deep fear of their names being on the list to be repatriated, causing distress and anguish”.
Last month, Myanmar officials said they verified 5,000 Rohingya refugees so far, with the “first batch” of 2,000 to be repatriated in November.
The UN condemned the repatriation deal, confirming it had not been consulted on the plan.
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the deal had taken the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) by surprise.
“To be clear … UNHCR, which is in lead on the issues of refugees, was not consulted on this matter,” said Dujarric.
Chris Melzer, UNHCR’s senior external officer based in Cox’s Bazar, reiterated this, saying: “UNHCR was not a party to that agreement”.
“We would advise against imposing any timetable or target figures for repatriation in respect of the voluntary nature and sustainability of return,” added Melzer. “It is unclear if refugees know their names are on this list that has been cleared by Myanmar.
“They need to be informed. They also need to be consulted if they are willing to return … It is critical that returns are not rushed or premature.”