Rohingya crisis: One year on, do they want to return to Myanmar?

Al Jazeera spoke with Rohingya living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar about their thoughts on repatriation.

Jantoli refugee camp [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
According to ISCG, 919,000 refugees have been displaced from their villages in Myanmar's Rakhine state [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

It has been one year since hundreds of thousands of the Rohingya population streamed into Bangladesh, as a result of a brutal crackdown carried out by the Myanmar army that was described by the United Nations as “textbook ethnic cleansing”.

The latest assault took place after a coordinated attack by the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) rebel group on a Myanmar police post and army base killed 12 security personnel.

For many of the Rohingya, who are not recognised by Myanmar as an ethnic group and are denied citizenship and government services, this was not the first time they had forcibly left their homes. 

Previous waves of displacement took place in 1978, 1991 and 2016.

According to the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), over the past year there has been an influx of 919,000 refugees who have been displaced from their villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

They live in 32 camps in the Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts, or upazilas, of the tourist beach town Cox’s Bazar, joining the 300,000 other Rohingya who were displaced in previous years.

The camps suffer from overcrowding and squalid conditions, with sanitation problems and lack of basic infrastructure.

About 200,000 Rohingya are at risk of landslides during the monsoon season, as the tarpaulin and bamboo shelters are built haphazardly on soft ground.

Last November, the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments signed a repatriation deal where they agreed that the Rohingya that fled across the border would be returned to Rakhine state.

However, little is known about what the deal holds, and there has not been a single return yet.

Many of the Rohingya cite their fears of returning only to be forcibly displaced again in the future.

For this reason, they say they will not return unless their demands are met, such as for Myanmar to grant them citizenship, greater inclusivity in government services such as education and workforce, the ensuring of security and safety, and reparations for all that they have lost.

Al Jazeera spoke with refugees living in various camps in Cox’s Bazar about whether they would return to their homelands and their thoughts on the repatriation deal.

Ali Johar, 25  
Ali Johar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 
Ali Johar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera] 

Ali is from Taung Bazar village in the Buthidaung Township, where he used to be a local trader in food items.

He arrived in Jamtoli refugee camp last August with his wife, son and sister.

“I didn’t know there was a repatriation deal. But I won’t go back unless certain demands are met, such as granting the Rohingya people citizenship, for Myanmar to ensure greater security for us, and to give us compensation for all that we’ve lost.”

Gulsahar, 50  
Gulsahar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Gulsahar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Gulsahar is from Taung Bazar and now lives in the Jamtoli refugee camp with her husband, Mohammad Shafi and her five children.

“I lost my sister and my nieces and nephews. They were killed by the Myanmar soldiers. I have made up my mind to stay here in Jamtoli until I die. Here, I receive help from the aid agencies. But even if the government of Bangladesh cuts off the aid, I would rather die from starvation than return to Rakhine.”

“I have three daughters and two sons. My eldest daughter is 20, and she is still unmarried. We are searching for a bridegroom.”

[Rohingya women tend to marry in their early teens because they fear getting raped by Myanmar soldiers, she said, adding that if the women are married, the soldiers lose interest]

Mahmud Yunis, 35  
Mahmud Yunis [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Mahmud Yunis [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Mahmud is from the Raballah village in Maungdaw Township. He is the eldest of seven siblings. He and his unmarried brothers live with their mother in Nayapara – Shalbagan refugee camp in Teknaf.

“I have no demands. I want to go back to my village without any compensation or conditions. I used to be a porter. Now I do nothing.”

“Every day I face many difficulties just to get food. I am dependent on aid. There are also hygiene problems, such as the lack of sanitary latrines. I don’t know much about the repatriation deal.”

Mir Ahmad, 60  
Mir Ahmad [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Mir Ahmad [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Mir is from Fukira Bazar in Maungdaw Township, where he was a farmer and owned 10 kani (1.6 hectares) of land. He now lives in Balukhali camp.

“I am married with two sons and one daughter. I am willing to go back to Rakhine if the Myanmar government meets our demands, such as compensation and recognising us as citizens.”

“Here I can get food and shelter. I feel better here than in my own village because there’s more security. But I want to return to Fukira Bazar because there, I can live in dignity.”

Hujjatul Islam, 12  
Hujjatul Islam [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Hujjatul Islam [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Hujjatul is from a village in Maungdaw Township, and now lives with his parents, two brothers and two sisters in Kutupalong camp, in the unregistered bloc 11.

“I was in Year Three in school when I was in Rakhine. Now I can’t find a proper school here except for the madrasahs where we learn the Quran. I haven’t heard of any repatriation deal.”

“I’ll go back if we have Rohingya recognition. We would much rather die here if Myanmar forces us to go back without granting us citizenship.”

Dildar Begam, 35  
Dildar Begam [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Dildar Begam [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

She is from Bolibazar village in Maungdaw Township and now lives in the Kutupalong camp.

“I have nine children and a husband. It took us two days to reach Cox’s Bazar. I saw so many massacres, rapes, and homes set on fire.

“I haven’t heard of the repatriation deal. I would only go back if Myanmar granted us Rohingya recognition. I don’t feel good here because this is not my land.”

I am grateful for the role of the Bangladeshi government and the aid agencies for helping us, but I want to live in dignity back in my own land.”

Nural Amin, 59 and Sayad Ahmad, 55  
Nural Amin (L), 59 and Sayad Ahmad (R), 55 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Nural Amin (L), 59 and Sayad Ahmad (R), 55 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

They are cousins from the Maungdaw Township. Amin has 10 kids and Ahmad has eight kids.

Nural Amin: “We haven’t heard of a repatriation deal. If the governments of both countries decide to physically return us to Rakhine, we have conditions that must be met first, like the Rohingya recognition and compensation.”

“I hope we won’t be forced to go back without any guarantees. We would prefer to die here in a Muslim country and not among Buddhists.”

“This is our third time being displaced. The first was in 1978 and the second time in 1991. Every time we returned to Rakhine we faced torture and government repression.”

“We were fishermen and farmers in Myanmar. Even though Myanmar is our country, there is no way we would go back there again without security or conditions. Bangladesh is more peaceful.”

Source: Al Jazeera