Four trucks and three buses were waiting in Cox’s Bazar, the site of the largest camp of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, for passengers to board on Thursday, according to the BBC.
The drivers were assigned to carry 2,000 refugees to Myanmar, from which they had been violently expelled in 2017, but most of the people scheduled to go back refuse to take the journey. Many refugees who have spoken to the press or nonprofits say they think the vehicles will carry them to their deaths — not a wholly irrational belief, considering they were victims of what the United Nations has dubbed a genocide just last year.
Families that had been selected for the trip have gone into hiding, according to the Guardian.
"I'm scared about the repatriation," a 40-year-old man whose name was on the list to be returned said, according to the BBC. "Though they are trying to reassure us, I'm not convinced. I think they might kill us if we go there."
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The refusal of refugees to participate throws a wrench in the repatriation process that the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar had been planning for months, and highlights the challenges that lie in ahead.
"We made all preparations,” Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told Reuters. “Everything was ready: the transit camp, buses to carry them to border, medical facilities, rations for three days for the returnees.”
Through the arrangement, Bangladesh would gradually return refugees that Myanmar had cleared for arrival to Rakhine state. Burmese officials said that measures would be taken to prevent any violence from being inflicted on the returning refugees, but human rights groups, including the United Nations, have called for the repatriation to be stopped because of lingering instability in the region and the unwillingness of the government to take responsibility for the genocide.
“In a repatriation, the victim must be part of any negotiations, because we are the ones who are suffering.”— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) November 15, 2018
Al Jazeera speaks to Rohingya activist and medic, Dr Anita Schug. pic.twitter.com/DDodUM67wh
“The human rights violations committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner on refugees, said in a statement.
“With an almost complete lack of accountability, indeed with ongoing violations, returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar at this point effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades,” she added.
While Bangladeshi officials said that they won’t force anyone to board the buses, people on the ground in Cox’s Bazaar say that threats are being made to coerce people to comply, according to the Guardian.
“The [Camp in Charge] have been telling Rohingya refugees [they] will face hardship if they do not return to Myanmar,” a refugee named Saifullah told the Guardian. “They are threatening to stop supplying rations to refugees, saying they will be barred from working with the different NGOs and will not have the freedom to move around freely.”
There are more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar. The camps are cramped, prone to the rapid spread of contagious diseases, and wholly dependent on international aid.
Because Bangladesh does not want the refugees to remain long-term, the government has refused to allow dwellings beyond temporary structures to be built, for fear that permanent homes would breed comfort.
Despite these dismal conditions, most Rohingya refugees would much rather stay put than return to Rakhine state, where more than 10,000 Rohingya were killed in 2017, any many more were injured, maimed, tortured, beaten, and raped. Further, since whole villages were burned down by the Myanmar military, it’s unclear where refugees would even resettle.
The failure to include these concerns into the repatriation process could ultimately doom its success.
“The lack of transparency surrounding this process is appalling. A population traumatized by Myanmar’s deadly campaign is now terrified of what their future holds – and where,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, in a statement.
“Returns at this time cannot be safe or dignified and would constitute a violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under international law. No government donor should be supporting a repatriation process that threatens Rohingyas’ lives and liberty.”