Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees have held protests in Bangladeshi camps over cuts to their UN food ration and claims that they are being pressured to return to an uncertain fate in Myanmar.
The Muslim Rohingya refugees – who from 2017 fled persecution by the Myanmar military – demonstrated in camps in Cox’s Bazar, south-east Bangladesh, on Thursday. They asked to be guaranteed safe return to their home country with citizenship rights granted.
Demonstrators held placards with the slogans “Say no to refugee life”, “UN is cutting our rations”, “We want reparations”, “We want to go back home,” in the protest that was part of their Going Back Home campaign.
Rohingya protester Mohammed Reduwan told The National his community does not want to “live as refugees any more”.
“After six years of waiting in a refugee camp, this must end. For genocide survivors like us, it is not a durable solution to go back home without safety, security and citizenship rights,” he said.
“Since 2017, we have been taking part in Going Back Home campaigns but nothing has changed yet,” he said. “How many more years do we have to wait in refugee camps to go back to our burnt or bulldozed homes?”
More than a million Rohingya refugees live in squalid camps in south-east Bangladesh, in the world’s largest refugee settlement.
Worsening poverty, rising crime, lack of work and fires in the camps have forced many Rohingya to flee Bangladesh by boat, to countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Last year, 348 Rohingya died at sea while making the perilous voyage across the Bay of Bengal.
Impact of UN ration cuts
These latest protests follow a second food ration cut by the World Food Programme – from $10 a month for each person to $8.
Many refugees consider this a “pressure tactic” to force them to accept a pilot repatriation process pushed by the Myanmar government.
“By starving us here, they think they can push us out,” Aslam, a Rohingya protester, told The National.
“It is hell here. It is a worse hell there [Myanmar]. So, we will not go unless they can promise us a better life.”
“All we are asking is a life with dignity. We belong to Myanmar and we deserve to live in our homeland.”
San Thai Shin, another Rohingya protester, told The National they want to show the world they are willing to go back to Myanmar, but need assurances for their safety.
“Our demands are rehabilitation in our original villages, citizenship rights, safety and security, and access to education, religious freedom, and freedom of movement. Without these guarantees, repatriation will not be sustainable,” said Mr Shin.
But he was concerned about returning to a country headed by Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who is widely believed to have overseen persecution of the Rohingya, before he seized power in a military takeover in 2021.
“I personally will not agree to risk myself and trust the monster who oppressed us for several decades and drove us out of the country,” said Mr Shin.
Bangladeshi officials have stated that 1,140 Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar in the first phase of the repatriation programme. A total of 6,000 are due to be returned by the end of the year.
Myanmar officials have already visited the camps in Bangladesh to verify names, and dozens of Rohingya were also taken to Myanmar's Rakhine state, to inspect settlement facilities arranged for refugees.
UN calls for halt to repatriation
The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has asked Bangladesh to immediately suspend the pilot repatriation project.
This follows claims that Bangladeshi authorities are using deceptive and coercive measures to compel Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.
“Conditions in Myanmar are anything but conducive for the safe, dignified, sustainable, and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees,” Mr Andrews said.
“Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who commanded the forces that launched the genocidal attacks against the Rohingya, now leads a brutal military junta that is attacking civilian populations while denying the Rohingya citizenship and other basic rights,” he added.
The move has also raised concerns from human rights activists.
Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development at the UN refugee agency, told The National the ration cut will force many Rohingya to return to Myanmar.
“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have always lived an extremely precarious life, a situation that has been exacerbated in recent years by the government's policy of preventing the establishment of refugee livelihoods and denying the Rohingya the ability to engage in income-generating opportunities,” he said.
Mr Crisp said there is currently no direct evidence to suggest that the UN's planned ration cuts are linked to the governments plans to repatriate the refugees at the earliest opportunity.
But he added that “there is a clear danger that with the threat of starvation hanging over them, some may decide that they have no other choice but to return to war-torn Myanmar or to risk the journey by boat to other countries is Asia”.