A well-publicized second attempt to return thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar collapsed on Thursday, with the U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh officials saying that none of those interviewed among the 3,450 people cleared for repatriation were willing to go back.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said it had assisted Bangladesh in recent days to survey the refugees on whether they wished to return to Myanmar. Some 740,000 members of the stateless Rohingya minority had fled to southeastern Bangladesh during a brutal military offensive launched in Myanmar’s Rakhine state two years ago.
“None of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time,” UNHCR said in a statement.
Bangladeshi authorities confirmed that not one person boarded any of the five buses, two trucks and 10 minivans at the Shalbon refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district on Thursday – the scheduled start date to repatriate the refugees, whose names were on a list cleared to return by both Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“Not a single Rohingya wants to go back without their demands being met,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, the chief of Bangladesh’s refugee commission, told reporters in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
At least two representatives of the Chinese embassy and one from the Myanmar embassy in Dhaka accompanied Kalam and Bangladeshi officials to Teknaf, the southernmost city of Bangladesh, to supervise the repatriation.
“We made all preparations to repatriate them … But none of the listed people showed interest in returning to their homeland,” Kalam said. “Bangladesh will not force any people to go back.”
Zheng Tianzhuo, director of the Chinese embassy’s political section, described the repatriation plans as “an ongoing process.”
“From, maybe, today and in the future, the first batch of [repatriation] could start any day, as long as they are willing, and as long as they are ready,” Zheng told reporters, referring to the refugees.
Presumably referring to Myanmar and Bangladesh, he said both of the “relevant stakeholders” had previously acknowledged that the prolonged stay of the Rohingya in the refugee camps would not benefit either of the neighboring countries.
Zheng and the other embassy officials did not respond to questions from reporters, but his statements offered a glimpse into Beijing’s participation in the repatriation process.
“China has already tried its best to persuade, or to convey the message, either from Bangladesh or from the international community, to the Myanmar side,” Zheng said.
“So I think what we need is just to encourage the Bangladesh government and the Myanmar government to keep the dialogue and communicate with each other in this regard,” he said.
UNHCR interviewed more than 200 Rohingya families on Wednesday and Tuesday ahead of the scheduled start of repatriation. The refugees cleared by Myanmar to return belonged to 1,037 families, officials said.
But Rohingya leaders campaigned against repatriation, with many of them issuing a statement on Wednesday expressing concerns about how the list of returnees was created. They said they would not return without guarantees for their safety and assurances from Myanmar that they would be granted citizenship.
More than 700 refugees, who said they were from Camps 24, 26 and 27 in Cox’s Bazar, signed their names and affixed their thumbprints in the statement distributed to reporters.
Latest figures from the Bangladeshi home ministry show that more than 1.2 million Rohingya are now living at makeshift shelters in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps, including 200,000 who fled earlier bouts of violence in Myanmar.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar has subjected them to systematic discrimination by denying the “Bengalis” access to jobs, education, and health care, as well as refusing to grant them citizenship, although many have lived in the country for generations.
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, which occurred on Aug. 25, 2017.
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.
UN report: Myanmar military showed genocide intent
In a report released on Thursday in New York, the U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said that sexual violence carried out by Myanmar’s security forces against the Rohingya was so widespread and severe that it demonstrated intent to commit genocide.
The acts of sexual violence warranted prosecution of the Myanmar military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the mission said in its report.
It found that the country’s soldiers “routinely and systematically employed rape, gang rape and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people in blatant violation of international human rights law.”
The U.N. mission, led by Indonesian human rights lawyer Marzuki Darusman, had earlier documented other major abuses allegedly perpetrated by the Myanmar military in Rakhine since 2016, including widespread killings and the torching of villages.
The U.N Security Council met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya and the refugee issue, but did not issue any statements or press releases afterward. On Thursday, a press officer for the security council did not immediately return emails and a call from BenarNews seeking details about the meeting.
On Nov. 23, 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal to repatriate the Rohingya in a “voluntary, safe and dignified” manner. The plan was to start repatriation on Jan. 22, 2018.
But after a series of missed deadlines, the two countries agreed that the first batch of refugees would return in November last year. That plan also fizzled out.
“We are apprehensive that they may not go. But we attempted twice to repatriate them as Myanmar told us that they were ready to accept the displaced people,” Kalam, the refugee commissioner, told BenarNews on Thursday.
“We tried to explore whether they wanted to go,” he said. “If we did not attempt, Myanmar would then accuse Bangladesh of non-cooperation. We want to help Myanmar take back its people.”
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K.M. Abdul Momen said that his government would keep pressing for the repatriation of Rohingya despite the latest attempt’s failure to take off.
“But the process must not stop,” he told reporters in Dhaka. “This will go on. Anyone showing interest in returning will be sent back.”