About 500 Rohingya refugees staged protests Friday at a camp in southeastern Bangladesh to air concerns about their safety and other questions tied to a government plan to repatriate thousands of their people to Myanmar.
The two demonstrations – the first of their kind – took place at the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district while Rohingya leaders visited camps to post a list of 21 pre-conditions they want the government to meet before refugees would agree to be repatriated voluntarily.
These demands include that the stateless people be given Myanmar citizenship. Listed on banners, the 21-points were formulated by a new group, the Rohingya Rights Establishment Committee, sources in Cox’s Bazar told BenarNews.
“We appeal to Bangladesh, the U.N. and the international community not to repatriate us without securing our citizenship. If we get citizenship, we can get our houses and property back and compensation for the loss of lives and wealth,” Abdul Khaleq, a Rohingya leader at the Madhuchhara camp in Kutupalong, told BenarNews.
“Otherwise, we will be thrown into the bay,” said Khaleq, who was involved in framing the 21-point list.
The list was circulated as officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar moved to implement a bilateral agreement signed on Nov. 23 to repatriate about 700,000 Rohingya refugees from southeastern Bangladesh to Rakhine, a state in Myanmar that borders Cox’s Bazar.
“Two brief demonstrations took place on Friday – one at block-B/3 and the other at block E/3 at the Kutupalong camps in Ukhia. I have talked to the protesters about their demands. They protested against the government plan to repatriate them without ensuring their safety and security in Rakhine,” Nur Khan Liton, the former director of a leading Bangladeshi human rights NGO, Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, said in an interview from Cox’s Bazar.
“They want to return to Rakhine; they are not against the repatriation. But their first demand is: Myanmar must announce granting them citizenship, and ensure their civil rights in Rakhine,” Liton said.
‘Voluntary, safe and with dignity’
At least 655,000 Rohingya fled from an outbreak of violence and a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine, which started in late August 2017 following attacks on government security posts by a Rohingya insurgent group. Overall, about 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in Bangladesh, including those who fled earlier waves of violence in Rakhine.
Liton said the demonstrators want to return to Rakhine under the protection of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They also want assurances that returnees be taken to a safe zone under the auspices of the United Nations before going back to their home villages.
“They also demand that the Myanmar authorities must give them compensation for destroying their houses and other property, and try the perpetrators committing killings, rape, arson and other crimes against humanity,” Liton added. He was referring to widespread allegations that Myanmar security forces and militiamen in Rakhine carried out atrocities against Rohingya civilians, including the burning of villages.
Bangladeshi police and government officials on Friday denied any demonstrations had taken place at the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
Bangladeshi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said the first group of refugees would begin returning to Myanmar early next month.
“The repatriation would be voluntary, safe and with dignity,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, government officials told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, that they were handling paperwork for more than 700 Muslims and 400 Hindu refugees from Rakhine who had applied to return home.
“About 1,100 Muslims and Hindus who lost their houses in fires informed us they want to come back. We have already checked their names and photos and asked Bangladesh to send their application forms, but we haven’t received the completed forms yet,” said Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population.
Set of demands
In Cox’s Bazar, District Deputy Commissioner Ali Hossain said he had not seen or obtained a copy of the 21-point list, which was circulated and posted at the Kutuplaong, Balukhali, Jamtoli and Thaingkhali, and Leda refugee camps and settlements in the area.
“We will investigate who set up the boards,” he told BenarNews.
Apart from a guarantee of citizenship, the pre-conditions for repatriation, as listed by the committee, include civil rights, freedom of movement, as well as rights to religion and education be guaranteed for Rohingya, and that perpetrators of atrocities against the minority group be arrested and put on trial.
The 21-point list is similar to recommendations made last year by the Rakhine State Advisory Commission, which was headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Annan Commission recommended that Myanmar grant citizenship to the Rohingya and ensure their civil rights as a solution for easing long-running inter-communal tensions in Rakhine state.
“We support the demands. We must be given our civil rights back. Otherwise, we will not go back,” Abdul Hakim, another leader of a Rohingya refugee camp, told BenarNews.