From persecution to no man's land: Rohingya refugees caught in repatriation limbo

Forced returns could prolong the desperate plight of the Rohingya Muslims

A Rohingya refugee Muslim who was staying in no-man's land at Bandarban between Myanmar and Bangladesh border, sits with her belongings after arriving at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar say some of them had returned home several times over past decades, and they're in no mood to repatriate again. Although, Myanmar says it's ready for a gradual repatriation of Muslim Rohingya refugees chased out by the Buddhist-majority country's military. More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslims are now living in sprawling and squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Caught on a strip of land between Bangladesh and Myanmar, 6,000 Rohingya Muslims anxiously wait to see if they will be sent back to homes few want to return to.

Behind the scenes a tense battle is being fought by the two governments over their future and that of more than 750,000 other Rohingya who escaped a military crackdown in Myanmar and now live in camps in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh decided this week to delay the start of repatriating refugees who began streaming over the border in October 2016.

That stream turned into a flood in August last year, as Rohingya fled what the United Nations has described as "ethnic cleansing".

While Myanmar claimed it was ready to accept the refugees, Bangladesh said it needed more time to prepare.

Diplomats say that Dhaka is facing pressure not to send the Rohingya back to their hostile homeland.

Life is not easy at Konarpara, a sliver of no man's land between a barbed wire fence and a putrid creek, where hundreds of tarpaulin and bamboo shanties have sprouted up on a former rice paddy since last August.

Those scratching out an existence there are among thousands of Rohingya who fled in the early days of the crisis and were blocked from entering Bangladesh.

They can see Myanmar soldiers patrolling the border and Burmese children flying kites beyond the frontier.

Bangladesh border forces control the other side, letting the refugees cross into their territory to collect aid and see doctors.

Husne Ara, a 26-year-old mother of five who said that her husband and two sons were killed in Myanmar, would rather die in limbo than return.

"There is no way I will go. Why don't you just kill us here instead? I would prefer that over being sent back," said Ms Ara.

"If Bangladesh doesn't want us, doesn't want to take responsibility for us, then just kill us. But I cannot go back after what they did," she said in reference to the violence which unfolded in Myanmar late last year.


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Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an accord in November to start sending back the Rohingya.

The huge operation should have started this week, with many expecting those in no man's land to be the test of whether an official scheme can start in the giant camps around Cox's Bazar.

Abul Naser, a 45-year-old Rohingya said they still heard gunshots and saw flames rising from burning villages across the border.

"How can they talk about sending us back there? We will not go. Not first, not last," he said.

UN, aid and human rights groups have doubts about the repatriation scheme. Human Rights Watch warned Wednesday that transit camps proposed for Myanmar would be "open-air prisons".

Myanmar's minister of international cooperation Kyaw Tin said Tuesday that his country is "completely ready to welcome them".

A senior Bangladesh government official called this "propaganda", saying accommodation was still inadequate.

"Myanmar has to fulfil the number one condition required for the physical movement of people: the conditions have to be right in Myanmar," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said that under the agreement, Myanmar had to inform Bangladesh of their resettlement plan but "these procedures have not started yet."

Rohingya villages that were burnt in the violence must be rebuilt "otherwise people won't go", he added.

"Where they will live? People won't live in the camps. Myanmar is not saying anything on these issues. They are carrying out false propaganda," the official said.

Lists of possible returnees had to be drawn up, and at least a month needed for Myanmar to approve, he said. Another month would be needed to prepare the Rohingya for their return.

The involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also had to be agreed, the official added.

A foreign diplomat in Dhaka said that while there is international pressure for humanitarian action, Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party also had to "satisfy domestic political constituencies that support the Rohingya cause."

Rohingya refugees have erected banners, chanted slogans and staged angry rallies in crowded camps near the border in Cox's Bazar as tension mounts over the looming relocation.

Two Rohingya men were sentenced on Tuesday and jailed for a week for protesting against the repatriation plan, Bangladesh police said on Wednesday.

Abdul Jabbar and Ali Hossain, both in their 60s, were sentenced after being charged with creating a public nuisance.

Bangladesh insists the repatriation process will be voluntary but police have ramped up security in the camps.