More than 100 babies among Rohingya refugees in disputed Myanmar return plan

Hundreds of Rohingya in Bangladesh have been confirmed by Myanmar authorities as the first batch to return home after their 2017 exodus

A Rohingya girl comforts her baby sister after their mother falls unconscious while being taken from the border to a refugee camp in Bangladesh,
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More than 1,000 Rohingya refugees, including 150 newborn babies, are on the list of a controversial pilot repatriation project to Myanmar, despite concerns regarding the safety of their return.

Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, told The National: “There is a total of 1,140 Rohingya in the list that Myanmar's government sent us, 711 people from the list have got their papers already cleared. The remaining 429 have to be verified,”

A Myanmar delegation visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar last month and interviewed 429 refugees, he confirmed.

Mr Rahman said that about 150 newborns were on the list.

Bangladesh does not know the basis on which these 1,140 refugees had been selected, nor the timetable for their repatriation, Mr Rahman said.

“The Myanmar officials came and conducted interviews with those that needed verification. Now, we are waiting for their response. But we do not know when they can go home.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was aware of the officials' visit but was not involved in the process.

Bangladesh is believed to be home to the world’s largest refugee settlement, hosting more than 1 million Rohingya refugees, most of them fleeing in 2017 after a brutal military-led crackdown on the ethnic minority in Rakhine state, in the north of Myanmar.

It is feared that conditions for the Muslim minorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have worsened since the 2021 military coup,

“There is no hide and seek from our side," Mr Rahman said. "We are clear that the repatriation process should be voluntary, done with dignity and should be sustainable. We hope we will be ensured about the next phases and a clear pathway forward to send the Rohingya refugees to their home country.”

'We don’t trust them'

Some of the Rohingya refugees who are on the repatriation list told The National they do not trust the process initiated by the military junta.

“I never applied for a voluntary repatriation, I do not know how me and my family made it to the list,” Abu Sufyan, 30, who was interviewed by the visiting Myanmar officials, told The National.

“There are 1,800 people in my block and 23 made it to the list including me, my wife and my two children. We were summoned to the repatriation centres in Teknaf.

“Nobody asked us whether we are willing to go back and on what conditions. They just asked us about some people in our villages in Rakhine.”

Mr Sufyan said he was shocked to later discover that his wife and kids made it to the final list — but not him. “How is it possible for just them to go back without me? I am convinced that this is just a game they are playing with us to build an image in front of the world.”

Many refugees that The National spoke to also said they were not willing to return to Myanmar without any assurances of citizenship and other basic rights.

Sayedul Karim, 23, a Rohingya refugee activist, told The National that the whole exercise of repatriation was pointless without bringing the perpetrators of the 2017 genocide to justice.

“We are still fighting for justice in the International Court of Justice. It has been proven beyond doubt that there is no limit to the crimes against humanity committed by the Myanmar military.”

Mr Karim, who has six members of his immediate family living in the camp, said many refugees would rather suffer the dire situation in Bangladesh than return and be under the mercy of the Myanmar military.

“We do not even know where we are going back to because many of the villages were torched or bulldozed by the military. We don’t have homes to go back to. What if they kill us after a few months of return?”

A Rohingya refugee at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in the aftermath of a  fire. Reuters

Conditions not suitable for safe return

Humanitarian organisations have also expressed reservations about the repatriation process.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has urged Bangladesh to call off the plan, claiming Rohingya refugees' "lives and liberty would be at grave risk".

UNHCR said conditions in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State were “not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees."

“At the same time, we reiterate that every refugee has a right to return to their home country based on an informed choice, but that no refugee should be forced to do so,” the UN agency said in a statement.

Chris Lewa, co-ordinator of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, told The National that nothing had changed for the Rohingya in northern Rakhine since 2017.

“There is no safety," he said.

“150,000 displaced by violence in 2012 are still in 'internment camps' in central Rakhine 10 years later. In 2022, more than 2,500 Rohingya were arrested for travelling without permission outside Rakhine and face two to five years imprisonment for unauthorised travel.

“In addition, the armed conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Armed Forces could resume any time, and the Rohingya still residing in Rakhine were trapped between the two warring parties when clashes occurred."

Updated: April 09, 2023, 12:39 PM