Rohingya shocked, terrified as deadline for Myanmar return nears

Myanmar and Bangladesh expected to start repatriation of thousands of Rohingya this week, but UN says move is premature.

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    Young Rohingya women queue for food at Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh in June [Clodagh Kilocyne/Reuters]
    Young Rohingya women queue for food at Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh in June [Clodagh Kilocyne/Reuters]

    Yangon, Myanmar - Abdul fled his burning home last August amid a frenzy of screams, smoke and gunfire.

    As soldiers from Myanmar's army shot people down at his village in northern Rakhine state, he saw his nephew and son-in-law struck and killed by bullets.

    Abdul made it across the border with his wife and four children to Bangladesh where, like hundreds of thousands of other Muslim-majority Rohingya, they have lived for more than a year in cramped, desperate conditions.

    Life there has been bleak, but they have at least been out of reach of the army accused by UN investigators of waging a genocidal campaign of mass murder, arson and systematic rape against the minority group.

    But now Abdul - whose name has been changed to protect his identity - says he has been told he and his family will be sent back across the border to a region where Rohingya continue to face what one investigator recently called an "ongoing genocide".

    Rohingya crisis: UN warns of ongoing genocide

    Earlier this month, an official came to their hut at the Jamtoli camp in Cox's Bazar and told them they would be repatriated this week.

    "We were in shock, I couldn't say anything, my mouth just stopped working," he told Al Jazeera.

    Dozens of other families nearby have also been told they are on a list of more than 2,200 people to be sent back starting on Thursday after Bangladesh and Myanmar struck a deal at the end of last month to return some 5,000 people.

    More than 730,000 fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar's military, aided by Buddhist mobs, began attacking villages in August 2017 as part of what it claimed were counterterrorism operations.

    Bangladesh officials say returns will be voluntary, but Rohingya are unconvinced.

    'Nowhere to hide'

    Another Rohingya man who is on the list said a volunteer in the camp who works with government officials told him the decision was "final".

    The UN's refugee agency has said it was not consulted on the plans and would not facilitate any returns this month. But it has agreed to interview Rohingya on the list to determine if they are willing to return.

    "If we assess that they're not going of their own free will that means the government will probably have to take another position," said Firas al-Khateeb, a spokesperson for the agency.

    Regardless of whether the plan goes ahead, talk of repatriations has sparked violence and chaos in a community already suffering extreme psychological trauma. At least 70 families at Jamtoli have reportedly gone into hiding, said Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya advocacy group The Arakan Project.

    The threat of forced repatriation is also a likely factor in a recent uptick in people trying to flee Bangladesh by boat in hopes of reaching Malaysia, she told Al Jazeera.

    A Rohingya man at the Jamtoli camp in Bangladesh [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Some Rohingya on the list, including Abdul, say they are prepared to take their own lives in Bangladesh to avoid being sent back.

    "We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Our only option is suicide," Abdul said.  

    'Dangerous and premature'

    He has heard people in his camp crying "day and night" since they learned they were to be sent back. One family of orphaned siblings, the oldest of whom is 18, is also on the list, he added.

    Another Rohingya refugee told Al Jazeera that in recent days police have been posted at areas of the Jamtoli camp housing people to be sent back. "They haven't done anything to anyone, but people assume they came to watch over people on the list," he said anonymously, fearing repercussions.

    Nay San Lwin, an activist working with the Free Rohingya Coalition, said he confirmed three cases of men attempting suicide after being told they would be sent back.

    "It is likely many more will try to kill themselves on Bangladeshi soil if they are to be forcibly repatriated," he said. "They will be in the killing fields if they are sent back this month."

    Last week 42 NGOs working in the Bangladesh camps and in Rakhine state issued a statement warning that repatriating refugees now would be "dangerous and premature".

    Rohingya "are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned ... and distressed by the lack of information they have received", the statement said.  

    Who can protect Rohingya returnees?

    The UN's special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has warned returning people this week could violate international laws that forbid forcing refugees back to countries where they risk persecution.

    Last month the chair of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, Marzuki Darusman, warned that genocide is still taking place in Rakhine, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who did not flee last year's violence face severe restrictions on their movement.

    'Trapped'

    About 140,000 have been trapped behind barbed wire barricades in squalid camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rakhine's state capital, since being forced from their homes by mobs of hardline Buddhists in 2012.

    Hunger and disease are rife in the camps.

    And Myanmar's authorities, fuelled by anti-Muslim nationalists, have severely restricted access to basic services including healthcare and education.

    Many Rohingya in Bangladesh say they would like to return to their homes in Myanmar, but they are adamant they will not be safe until their citizenship and other rights are restored, and those responsible for last year's violence are held to account.

    An aerial view of the Hla Phoe Khaung transit camp for returning Rohingya [Ye Aung Thu/Pool via Reuters]

    Rohingya community leaders have also called for "international protection" for returnees.

    Many of their villages have been burned to the ground, and in some places, new structures intended to house members of other ethnicities have been built in their place.

    The government says the returnees will be housed in what it calls transit camps for the expected returnees, but it is unclear where the repatriated Rohingya are expected to settle in the longer term.

    "All these people are from villages that don't exist any more, where are they going to go?" said Lewa.

    "To me, it seems likely the government is going to make more camps; they're going to be trapped like the people in Sittwe."

    The Rohingya Exodus

    101 East

    The Rohingya Exodus

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera