The forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar is a violation of international law. The repatriation has been halted, for now, and it gives the international community a chance to formulate a new solution.
“In Burma, our sisters and mothers were mercilessly slaughtered and burned alive,” says a young Rohingya Muslim woman in a video sent to me on Tuesday by a source in Unchiprang refugee camp, located in Teknaf, Bangladesh.
“This is why we came here and with great difficulty…but RAB (Bangladeshi security forces) have surrounded us. They don’t allow us to eat and want to take us away tonight.”
In another video, a Rohingya Muslim orphan stands in front of dozens of other orphans, pleading with the camera, “We are all orphans. Our families were brutally killed by the Myanmar military. We want justice. Then we will go back.”
These are only but a sample of the desperate pleas that are echoing from more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who face the real and immediate prospect of being forcibly removed from their sanctuary on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border after both countries agreed to resettle those who fled a genocide that began in August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched its campaign against the country’s 1.2 million Rohingya.
Under the terms of the bilateral agreement, Bangladesh is scheduled to send an initial group of 2,260 Rohingya from nearly 500 families, but dozens of international aid agencies and the United Nations have opposed the deal on the grounds that the genocide in Myanmar is ongoing, and that the security of the repatriated cannot be guaranteed.
Faced with hunger strikes, protests, and a growing chorus of international condemnation, however, Bangladesh has put a temporary halt on forcibly returning 720,000 Rohingya refugees to the arms of those who actively sought their destruction.
The question now becomes how long will this halt of the repatriation deal stay in effect given there’s increasing political pressure on the Bangladeshi government from Bangladeshis to return the Rohingya to Myanmar.
“Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, so when impoverished Bangladeshis see humanitarian aid trucks drive past them on the way to the Rohingya refugee camps, they feel understandably jealous and resentful, “ Naveed Iqbal, a British medic who has provided medial aid to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on multiple occasions, told me.
When I asked Satar Nirob, a 28-year-old Rohingya refugee in Kutupalong refugee camp, what he would do if forced to return home, he said he’d have no choice but to “run away to somewhere else,” adding that everyone in his camp is “terrified” of having to come face-to-face with Myanmar’s military again.
“Why should I return?” he asked me. “Who will guarantee my safety?”
“Without nationality and citizenship, we [Rohingya] are nobody,” Nirob explained. “We have no rights. We can’t get jobs, go to school, or live in peace.”
On Monday, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on Bangladesh to put a stop to its plans to repatriate the Rohingya, saying it violated international law.
“We are witnessing terror and panic among those Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will," said Bachelet.
"Forcibly expelling or returning refugees and asylum seekers to their home country would be a clear violation of the core legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids repatriation where there are threats of persecution or serious risks to the life and physical integrity or liberty of the individuals."
While the world determines their fate, and without their wellbeing, fears or concerns taken into consideration, nearly one million Rohingya remain prisoners in makeshift camps. They are denied freedom of movement and citizenship rights in both countries, and have limited access to medical care, dietary needs and education.
For many, though, even such horrific living conditions are preferable to returning to homes that no longer exist or have been burnt to the ground - a dark reality underscored by the fact that at least two Rohingya men recently attempted suicide in a tragic effort to avoid repatriation.
“In reality, the so-called repatriation plan is nothing but a scheme designed to whitewash the Myanmar military’s crimes and to help it escape accountability,” observes Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, a Rohingya journalist.
“Under pressure from the international community, the Myanmar government is trying to show its eagerness to take refugees back from Bangladesh – but without fulfilling our demands for equal rights and security.”
Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, shares Anwar’s view, arguing that the government of Myanmar’s motive to allow the return of the Rohingya is merely a strategy to avoid being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
This strategy has been employed since the ICC ruled in September, the month before the repatriation deal with Bangladesh was brokered, that it was willing to prosecute Myanmar government officials and its military leaders for alleged crimes against humanity.
Moreover, Myanmar continues to deny accusations it carried out systematic violence against the Rohingya, denying almost all accusations, and instead absurdly arguing its military was merely involved in “counterterrorism operations” in Rakhine state. An absurd line of defense given the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, declared the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya to be “unfinished business.”
So, while international pressure from human rights groups has at least temporarily staved off what would be a forced deportation of 720,000 Rohingya refugees, the prospect of them being sent back to a country that not only killed their families while trying to kill them, is real, and close at hand.
Therefore there’s never been a more urgent and opportunistic time for the international community to put in place a multilateral repatriation plan that guarantees not only the Rohingya security, but also a future in the country of their birth.
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