Fresh off a visit to a refugee camp in Bangladesh, a senior United Nations official said Tuesday he could not see how repatriation of Rohingya could begin because of what he called persistent systematic violence against their people in Myanmar.
The nature of the violence against the stateless Rohingya had “changed from the frenzied blood-letting and mass rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and starvation,” said Andrew Gilmour, the U.N.’s assistant secretary-general for human rights.
Gilmour had spent three days talking with newly arrived refugees and meeting officials at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar district. The new type of campaign appeared to be aimed at expelling the Rohingya from Rakhine, their home state, he said.
“The government of Myanmar is busy telling the world that it is ready to receive Rohingya returnees, while at the same time its forces are continuing to drive them into Bangladesh,” Gilmour said in a statement. “Safe, dignified and sustainable returns are of course impossible under current conditions.
“The conversation now must focus on stopping the violence in Rakhine State, ensuring accountability for the perpetrators, and the need for Myanmar to create conditions for return,” he said.
Three factors make the case for not sending Rohingya back to their homeland at this time, according to Gilmour.
First, there is an immediate threat of killings, rape and other forms of violence, he said.
In addition, given that all sources of food and livelihood have been destroyed or declared off-limits for most of the remaining Rohingya, it would be impossible to live in the Rakhine state and its neighboring regions in the short term.
“It seems almost a systematic attempt to destroy their future livelihoods,” he said.
The third factor is the apparent absence of any will to address the root causes resulting from decades-long policies of discrimination against the Rohingya, particularly the Myanmar government’s refusal to recognize their right to self-identification and to grant citizenship.
Myanmar officials have for months denied international allegations that its security forces were carrying out a campaign of so-called ethnic cleansing against the minority group, whose members are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar.
“Ultimately, the world cannot allow the authors of this brutal case of ethnic cleansing – which many believe may constitute genocide – to be rewarded. Repatriation of the Rohingya to their homes and their country will be necessary, as will accountability for the crimes against humanity that may have been committed against them,” Gilmour said.
“But while the refugees remain in Bangladesh, we call for the authorities to ensure that they can live in dignity, including by permitting access to some livelihood opportunities and by upholding the right to education of all Rohingya children.”
On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a news release supporting Gilmour’s statement.
“This is yet more evidence that any plans for organized repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh are extremely premature. No one should be returned to Myanmar until they can do so voluntarily, in safety and dignity – something that is clearly not possible today,” James Gomez, director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in the release.
Last month, Bangladesh handed over a list of more than 8,000 Rohingya for verification by Myanmar as a first step in the repatriation process. In November 2017, the neighboring countries agreed that about 750,000 who had fled to Bangladesh since October 2016 in escaping violence in Rakhine would be returned to Myanmar.
Stories of violence
Gilmour said one refugee told him about how the Myanmar military had abducted his father last month. A few days later, the man was instructed to collect the corpse, which was covered with bruises.
Another man recalled how he was tied up and beaten by police while others abducted his 17-year-old daughter, who had not been seen since Jan. 15.
The U.N. official praised Bangladesh for accepting close to 700,000 Rohingya who had crossed the border after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown in Rakhine in retaliation for attacks on police and army outposts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents in August 2017.
Gilmour called on international donors to support Bangladesh through long-term commitments to assist the Rohingya and the host communities.
He also issued a warning about the region’s upcoming rainy season.
“Having suffered so much from the man-made disaster inflicted by Myanmar, the fear is that this will be compounded by a natural disaster of heavy rainfall that will almost certainly lead to landslides and flooding. It will have the additional effect of polluting water sources through fecal sludge, causing outbreaks of cholera that could lead to many deaths,” Gilmour said.