Human rights groups urged Bangladesh and Myanmar on Wednesday to stop a second attempt to repatriate thousands of stateless Rohingya refugees until their return is “safe, voluntary and dignified.”
Last week, Bangladeshi officials told reporters that they were working with Myanmar to repatriate 3,450 refugees on Aug. 22. But authorities from both countries could not provide details on how the process would be implemented, while many refugees refuse to go back, citing fears for their security.
“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“Bangladesh has been generous with the Rohingya – though conditions in the camps have been difficult – but no refugee should feel compelled to return to a place that isn’t safe,” Ganguly said.
Bangladeshi officials and U.N. refugee agency UNHCR started consulting the refugees on Tuesday to find out if any of them would be willing to return to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, from where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled in August 2017.
The consultations took place days after Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told a news conference in Naypyidaw that the two neighboring nations had agreed to begin the repatriation process on Thursday for 3,450 people cleared to return. Those refugees had been verified from a list of more than 22,000 provided by Bangladesh, officials in Dhaka said.
On Wednesday, Rohingya refugees who said that UNHCR told them that they were on the list for repatriation issued a statement expressing concerns about how the list of returnees was created. They questioned why they were included on it.
Hundreds of refugees, who said they were from Camps 24, 26 and 27 in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district, signed their names and affixed their thumbprints in the statement distributed to reporters.
“The Myanmar Government raped us and killed us, so we need security. Without security, we will never go back,” Nosima, a Rohingya leader from Camp 26, said in the statement.
After the United Nations and Dhaka began the consultation process, many refugees also told HRW that while they wished to go home to Myanmar eventually, current conditions made their return unsafe, the New York-based rights watchdog said in a statement.
Many of the refugees on the initial lists refused to attend the consultations, HRW said.
The statement quoted a refugee as saying that refugees were aware of a recent report by Human Rights Watch that more than 125,000 Rohingya back in Myanmar were still in open-air camps in central Rakhine state, where they had been confined since 2012.
“If those people are released and return to their villages, then we will know it is safe to return and will go back home,” the refugee was quoted as telling HRW representatives.
Another refugee who was on the list of people to return with six family members also told HRW: “We do not want to go back to Myanmar, where so many of our loved ones did not even get a funeral, and ended up in mass graves after they were killed.”
Fortify Rights, an NGO focused on Southeast Asia, also called for repatriation plans to be stopped, saying authorities should first ensure that the persecuted Muslim minorities had basic rights and protection.
“Repatriations now would be dangerous and reckless,” said Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights. “Governments should focus on ensuring accountability for mass atrocities, restoring Rohingya citizenship rights, and ending deprivations of basic human rights that are ongoing in Rakhine State.”
More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed the border into Bangladesh two years ago, while escaping from their villages in Rakhine during a military crackdown that followed attacks by Rohingya insurgents on government security posts.
Refugees gave reporters and international investigators horrific accounts of rape, murder and the burning of their homes when Myanmar’s troops orchestrated a counter-offensive in response to the militant attacks. The United States and the U.N. have described the violence as “ethnic cleansing,” but Myanmar military officials have vehemently denied all claims of atrocities.
Last November, Myanmar and Bangladesh officials also approved the repatriation of 2,000 Rohingya but that effort failed because none were eager to return without guarantees of safety and citizenship.
The U.N. Security Council was scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting on Wednesday in New York about the repatriation plan, according to diplomats.