Bangladesh has postponed the repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar after criticism from human rights groups and the refusal of refugees to voluntarily participate in the program, according to Reuters.
The repatriation process will be revisited after the country’s general election on Dec. 30, but the challenges that dogged the initial effort will likely force a new approach that better considers the demands of the Rohingya people by the governments of both Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The announcement allays fears that the Rohingya would be forcibly removed from Bangladesh.
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“We have seen widespread reports that Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh may be forcibly repatriated to Myanmar, reports that UNICEF views with the utmost concern,” UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac told journalists in Geneva.
“The camp authorities reinforced the message that while they are ready to repatriate refugees on a voluntary basis, no Rohingya refugee will be forced to return to Myanmar if they do not wish to do so,” he added.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees currently live in Bangladesh after being violently expelled from Myanmar in 2017, following a genocidal campaign against the ethnic minority by the country’s military.
Since then, Bangladesh has been careful to define the refugee crisis as temporary and has vowed to relocate the Rohingya when the right time presented itself. On Nov. 15, Bangladesh sent buses and trucks to the main refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar to collect 2,000 refugees to go back to Myanmar, but everyone selected for the trip refused to board, setting up a showdown between the refugees and authorities.
"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."
Human rights groups, including the United Nations, condemned the process from the outset and called on Bangladesh to halt the whole program.
“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.
Many Rohingya refugees believe that the repatriation process is taking place without their input and many of their concerns have gone unanswered, according to the Guardian.
For one, the Rohingya want to be guaranteed citizenship if they return. Although Rohingya had lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for decades, they had never been formally recognized by the government and were marginalized and oppressed because of their undocumented status.
Myanmar said that returning Rohingya would be given “National Verification Cards” that will allow them to apply for citizenship, a deal that the refugees do not want to take because it still marks them as outsiders, according to Reuters.
Rohingya also want to be able to return to the land they were expelled from, according to Reuters, and would need assistance from the government to rebuild villages that were razed and set aflame by the military.
Finally, the Rohingya want the perpetrators of the genocide to be punished for their crimes. This justice would be joined by a commitment to protecting the Rohingya in Myanmar, where prejudices still run high against the minority group.
Since these demands have not been met, the Rohingya do not feel safe returning to Myanmar and the future of the repatriation remains unclear.
Rohingya who stayed behind in Rakhine state still live as second-class citizens, according to UNICEF.
“Rohingya children and families who remain in Rakhine state continue to face particular hardship and are in need of humanitarian assistance due to ongoing restrictions on their freedom of movement and limited access to essential services, such as health and education,” Boulierac, the UNICEF spokesperson, said.