Bangladesh says it will start repatriating Rohingya refugees from an initial group of 2,260 from Thursday despite warnings the Rohingya face almost certain persecution in Myanmar. But, this news and resulting preparations of bringing in troops to back this plan has driven fear through the refugee camps housing the displaced Rohingya.
There are reports that Rohingya refugees are fleeing from the camps in Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees are resorting to going into hiding, out of fear of being sent back to Myanmar this week, according to aid groups.
Many of the thousands of refugees in the teeming camps have expressed terror at the prospect of returning to Myanmar, where UN investigators say the conditions are still not suitable for repatriation. Bangladesh says only those who volunteer will be returned, but the UN rights chief says many refugees are panicking at the prospect of being sent back against their will.
Some families listed to return have fled, and are hiding in the nearby hills that surround the refugee camps. Additional police and soldiers were seen patrolling the camps and checking identity cards, stoking anxiety as the deadline for repatriation looms.
"Everyone is tense, the situation is very bad," said one community leader Abdur Rahim from the Cox's Bazar area, the border district hosting a small city of refugees perched on hillsides. "There are a lot of army and police inside the camps. They are checking the ID cards of Rohingya." Nur Islam, another leader in a different part of the camps, said the military were more visible in recent days as Bangladeshi officials try and convince refugees they will be safe if they go back.
"They are trying to convince the refugees that repatriation will only occur if the Burmese government has promised they will not harm the Rohingya," he said, using an alternative name for Myanmar.
A local police chief, Abul Khaer, played down reports of additional security, saying nothing in terms of personnel had changed in recent months. Bangladesh officials remain optimistic the large-scale refugee returns will start as planned on Thursday.
But, Myanmar’s government has not given any assurances that Rohingya will be sent back to their state of Rakhine from which they originally fled. Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement, said the returning Rohingya will be restricted only to the Maungdaw Township. He said, “Refugees who return to Myanmar will be taken to Hla Phoe Khaung Camp, where they will spend one night, then return to homes in Maungdaw.”
Bangladesh plans to send 150 people on the opening day. But, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday urged Dhaka to reconsider. "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 said in a statement.
She said the violations against the Rohingya "amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide." UNHCR have said it will not be facilitating the repatriations. US Vice President Mike Pence, on his visit to Singapore for the East Asia Forum told Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi that the violence against the Rohingya was "without excuse", adding pressure to Myanmar's civilian leader who this week had an Amnesty International honour revoked. (With AFP and PTI inputs)