The announcement by the Government of Myanmar of its intention to repatriate the Rohingya refugees fleeing to Bangladesh has caused panic among those refugees. Many of them have begun to flee their camps for fear of being forced back and the suffering awaiting them upon their return.
“The authorities have tried several times to motivate refugees to return to Myanmar, but they have been afraid and fled to other camps,” said Nur al-Islam from Jamtulei refugee camp in Bangladesh.
The authorities intend to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees who have fled a process described by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to the mainly Buddhist country from next Thursday.
However, the possibility of returning refugees to Myanmar has caused panic in the camps, prompting a number of families to be among the first to be returned, according to refugee leaders.
More than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the western state of Rakhine (Arakan) after a crackdown by the army in August last year.
Under the voluntary repatriation program, some 2260 Rohingya are scheduled to return from the border post in the south-eastern Cox-Bazar region in the first batch of deportations from Thursday.
The plan “created great confusion and fear” among the Rohingyas, many of whom are not ready to return to Rakhine unless they obtain guarantees of citizenship and other rights.
Reuters quoted more than 20 potential Bangladeshi returnees as saying they would refuse to return to Rakhine state from which they fled.
The Rohingya plan raises the concern of NGOs. On last Friday, 42 humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, Saif The Children and Handicap International, appealed to denounce the plan, noting that the Rohingya were “appalled” by the idea of returning to their homes in Myanmar.
Returnees will only be allowed in Mongdo, one of three areas where they have fled, if the return is accepted by issuing a card to verify their identity. Most of the Rohingya refuse this card because it is a document under which they are treated as foreigners.
Refugees fear they will be immediately stranded in camps in Rakhine state, where more than 120,000 people live in extremely poor conditions and are unable to move.
Refugees also fear being abused and refusing to return without security guarantees.
Rohingya members also request the Myanmar authorities to grant them proof of citizenship. The military authorities, which have ruled the country since 1982, deny their citizenship, considering them as second-class residents and depriving them of education and treatment services.
Bangladesh says it will not force anyone to return, as the United Nations says conditions are not yet safe for their return, one of the reasons being the protest by Buddhists in Myanmar for their return.
“The return will be voluntary and no one will be forced to return,” said Abdul Kalam, Bangladesh’s relief and deportation commissioner.