Rohingya fears grow as refugees face forcible return to Myanmar

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Aid agencies give warning as Myanmar and Bangladesh begin return of ‘terrified’ refugees to Rahkine state

The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar are to push ahead with the repatriation of thousands of Rohingya this week, despite objections by the UN, and against the wishes of the refugees, who spoke of being “terrified” at being sent back.

Last week fear gripped the camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh at the news that, without their consent, 4,355 people had been placed on a list of Rohingya approved for return by Myanmar. The first repatriations are due from Thursday, but not everyone who is on the list has been informed and it is unclear how it was compiled.

Rohingya refugee Mohammad Ayaj said that his father, Mohammad Shaker, 58, had died of a heart attack last week after suffering days of anxiety and sleeplessness at the prospect of being forcibly sent back to Myanmar. “Minutes before my father collapsed, he said to me, ‘Hide your brothers and sisters and save them from repatriation. Do not return to Myanmar, where you will face the violence again’,” Ayaj told the Observer.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh after a campaign of violence in Rakhine state in August 2017, described by a recent UN fact-finding mission as genocide, was carried out by the Myanmar military and some Buddhist Rakhine people against the Muslim minority. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were killed, and UN investigators found evidence of mass rape and torture.

Residents of the Cox’s Bazar camps said that, such were the fears of being sent back, two Rohingya refugees in Unchiprang camp had attempted suicide. Dil Mohammad, a 60-year-old Rohingya, tried to take his own life hours after neighbours told him his name was on the list. On Tuesday, Hamid Hossain, 55, attempted suicide after being told by a Bangladesh camp-in-charge (CIC) official that he would have to go back.

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Mohammad Ismail, who lives in Jamtoli refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar with his wife and six children, said: “Around me there are 13 other families who have been told that they are on the list but do not know how. Like me, they all do not want to go back to Burma, and are very confused and anxious. We do not know what is going to happen to us.”

The logistics of the repatriation remain opaque. Aung Thuerin, a member of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, said the first group of 2,000 “approved” refugees would be sent back to Myanmar by boat or land in “batches” of 150 per day. They would be processed in the Hla Phone Khaung transit camp in northern Rakhine state, which can house up to 30,000 people, before being relocated to their “original villages”.

Families are very confused and anxious. We do not know what is going to happen to us

Mohammad Ismail, refugee
But as most Rohingya villages were razed to the ground during the violence and most Rohingya land confiscated and given to local Buddhists, there is a question as to how this will be possible. Some new “model villages” have been built, but owing to limited UN access in the region little is known about the conditions the Rohingya would return to. There is still deep-rooted hostility to them in Rakhine’s Buddhist community.
“We do not want to live in a foreign country forever,” Ahmed added. “We will return to our homeland on our own but only when it is safe.”