Ro­hingya refugees ex­press fear of repa­tri­a­tion plan

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - RUMA PAUL COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH

Of­fi­cials say no­body will be forced to re­turn, but news of a Bangladeshi list vet­ted by Myan­mar stokes un­ease in camps

For Nu­rul Amin, a Ro­hingya Mus­lim liv­ing in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, the days since learn­ing he and his fam­ily were among a group of peo­ple set to po­ten­tially be repa­tri­ated to Myan­mar have been among the most fright­en­ing since they fled their home.

“I can hardly sleep at night for fear of get­ting forcibly repa­tri­ated. Since the time I heard that my name is on the list I can’t even eat,” says Amin, 35, who has four daugh­ters, a wife and sis­ter with him in the Jam­toli Camp in south­east Bangladesh.

Reuters iden­ti­fied and spoke to more than 20 of the roughly 2,000 Ro­hingya refugees on a list of peo­ple Myan­mar has agreed to take back. Though of­fi­cials say no­body will be forced to re­turn against their will, all say they have been ter­ri­fied since learn­ing this month their names were on the list pre­pared by Bangladeshi of­fi­cials and vet­ted by Myan­mar.

The list has not been made pub­lic and not all those whose names are on it have been in­formed, say Bangladeshi camp of­fi­cials, due to con­cerns of spark­ing wide­spread panic in a camp that shel­ters 52,000 refugees.

Bangladesh and Myan­mar agreed in late Oc­to­ber to this month be­gin the repa­tri­a­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ro­hingya Mus­lims who fled across the bor­der to es­cape a Myan­mar army crack­down, even though United Na­tions refugee agency and aid groups say doubts per­sist about their safety and con­di­tions in Myan­mar should they re­turn.

More than 700,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims crossed from Rakhine state, in mostly Bud­dhist Myan- mar, into Bangladesh from Au­gust last year, af­ter Ro­hingya in­sur­gent at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces trig­gered a sweep­ing mil­i­tary re­sponse.

Refugees said sol­diers and lo­cal Bud­dhists car­ried out mass killings and rape dur­ing the vi­o­lence in 2017, while UN-man­dated in­ves­ti­ga­tors have ac­cused the mil­i­tary of un­leash­ing a cam­paign with “geno­ci­dal in­tent.”

Myan­mar has de­nied al­most all the al­le­ga­tions. It has rejected the UN find­ings as one-sided, and said the mil­i­tary ac­tion was a le­git­i­mate coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tion.

This week, the UN’s hu­man­rights in­ves­ti­ga­tor on Myan­mar urged Bangladesh to drop the re- pa­tri­a­tion plan, warn­ing that the Ro­hingya still face a high risk of per­se­cu­tion in Myan­mar.

A Bangladesh for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named, said on Fri­day the coun­try would not send any Ro­hingya back force­fully. “The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment is in talks with them to mo­ti­vate them,” he said.

Sep­a­rately, an­other for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial said the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would ver­ify whether those short­listed were will­ing to re­turn.

Fi­ras Al-Kha­teeb, a UNHCR rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters that ef­fort would start within a few days. “We have not started the process yet but we will be car­ry­ing out an as­sess­ment of the vol­un­tari­ness,” he said.

Dr. Min Thein, di­rec­tor of the dis­as­ter man­age­ment de­part­ment at the Min­istry of So­cial Wel­fare, Re­lief and Re­set­tle­ment in Myan­mar, said his team was pre­par­ing for 2,000 peo­ple to re­turn.

“The Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment is do­ing the scru­ti­niz­ing,” said Min Thein. An of­fi­cial at Myan­mar’s Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment de­clined to an­swer ques­tions over the phone.

In late Oc­to­ber, a del­e­ga­tion from Myan­mar vis­ited the camps in an ef­fort to urge Ro­hingya to par­tic­i­pate in the repa­tri­a­tion process.

Refugees who spoke to Reuters said they did not trust the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties to guar­an­tee their safety. Some said refugees would go back only if they got to re­turn to their own land and were given cit­i­zen­ship.

“I’ll just con­sume poi­son if I am forced to go back,” said Ab­dur Rahim, 47, who pre­vi­ously owned a shop and two acres of land in Rakhine. “I saw my cousin shot dead by mil­i­tary. … What is the guar­an­tee that we’ll not be per­se­cuted again?”

Nur Kaida, 25, who is the mother of a 19-month-old girl, said it “would be bet­ter to die in the camps rather go back and get killed or raped.”

FRED DU­FOUR/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Ro­hingya refugees march af­ter cross­ing the Naf River from Myan­mar into Bangladesh in Oc­to­ber, 2017. More than 700,000 peo­ple fled Myan­mar’s Rakhine state af­ter Ro­hingya in­sur­gent at­tacks on se­cu­rity forces trig­gered a harsh mil­i­tary re­sponse.

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