An increasingly frustrated Dhaka government and a hostile Myanmar government have pushed Rohingya refugees into a corner with nowhere to go.
It has been two years since a brutal military campaign waged by Myanmar authorities triggered an exodus of at least 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh — an operation that rights groups have branded “ethnic cleansing” or “genocide.”
A UN fact-finding mission has documented major abuses in Rakhine since 2016, including widespread killings and torching of villages, and said its findings warrant prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity in a forum such as the International Criminal Court.
“The Burmese military have succeeded in its mission, they don’t make any bones about how they feel or view the Rohingya,” Burmese coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition Maung Zarni told TRT World.
Myanmar denies most of the allegations but admits to a few atrocities, including the execution of 10 Rohingya men. Doctors Without Borders estimates that at least 6,700 were killed, 730 of which were children.
But the events of 2017 were not the first time the Rohingya faced persecution. Over a span of four decades, Myanmar has consistently tried to strip the Rohingya of Myanmar citizenship.
Myanmar has been “institutionalising the persecution and subjecting the Rohingyas to extreme and sadistic forms of violence, including mass rape and throwing children onto fire, burning houses and slaughtering people,” Zarni told TRT World.
This has been through a slew of measures designed to exclude Rohingyas as a sizable slice of Myanmar’s population — moves like enacting a 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denying Rohingya citizenship, under which they are not recognised as a national ethnic group in Myanmar.
But stripping Rohingya of citizenship also extends past legislative means — Myanmar authorities are now reportedly forcing some Rohingya at gunpoint to accept National Verification Cards that class them as foreigners, rights group Fortify Rights reported.
Neither here nor there
The Rohingya in Myanmar are widely believed by the public to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, although many have traced their roots in Rakhine State preceding the creation of the Burmese state.
After the 2017 exodus, there have been plans to repatriate the Rohingya but where to?
“There are 120,000 Rohingyas in ‘concentration camps’ — the term used by German Foreign Office officials in private meetings with Rohingyas — where they have been caged since the organised violence erupted in 2012, and an additional 400,000 live in ‘vast open prisons’ in towns such as Buthidaung and half of the unburned Rohingya villages,” Zarni wrote for Anadolu Agency.
A recent BBC report documented that Rohingya villages have been razed to the ground to make room for internment camps, bordered by razor wire fencing and an increased security presence.
Rohingya Muslims returning to Myanmar may be unlikely to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the government, a 2017 Reuters report said.
“The extensive and continuing destruction of Rohingya communities long after the violent military campaign of 2017 had ended means few of the refugees would be able to go back to their old lives and communities,” the BBC reported.
Indeed they don’t want to unless assured of security and citizenship— a fresh push to repatriate them fell flat when no one turned up.
On the other side of the border, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are facing an increasingly uncertain future with a hostile media landscape and little opportunity to build a future for themselves.
“Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh or Myanmar have no freedom of movement, no access to school, no real livelihoods or no future at all,” Zarni told TRT World.
Bangladeshi officials view this as a security threat.
In September, the Bangladeshi military reported in a meeting that out of 1.2 million Rohingya refugees in 31 makeshift camps, 400,000 children — aged between 12 and 17 — are not receiving any education and pose a threat not only to the country but to the entire region.
"Given the opportunity, they [children] will spread across the country [Bangladesh] and international terrorist organizations may try to use them to serve their interests," Lt. Gen. Mahfuzur Rahman, an army official, was quoted as saying by the Daily Star.
Also in September, Bangladesh cut access to 3G and 4G internet in Rohingya camps, disrupting communications between different camps and with family and friends still in Myanmar.
"I have my family there. If I do not have a mobile phone, how can I stay connected?" Mohammed Rashid, a refugee who fled to Bangladesh two years ago told Reuters.
And there are the plans to relocate some 100,000 refugees to the muddy isle of Bhasan Char accessible only by boat, plans for which include erecting a barbed wire fence and security guards to pen refugees in.
NGOs and rights group have voiced concerns over the potential move, saying that frequent flooding and cyclones in the area will jeopardise the safety of the refugees.
But Dhaka issued an ultimatum to the UN — they either relocate to the island or face deportation back to Myanmar.
The recent measures come as Dhaka grows frustrated with failed attempts to repatriate them back to Myanmar.
Although Myanmar authorities say they are ready to receive any who return, refugees have refused to go back for fear of further violence. For the Rohingya, moving back across the border is tantamount to suicide.