Bangladesh appears poised to repatriate members of the Muslim minority who fled the campaign of violence against them. They would be at grave risk
Bangladeshi soldiers, police and paramilitaries have already moved into the camps at Cox’s Bazar where some 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled last year. Repatriations to Myanmar are due to begin on Thursday. The returns are supposed to be safe, voluntary and dignified, but it is clear that none of these can be the case; the UN rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, says there is “terror and panic”.
Listed families have gone into hiding and residents of the camps have alleged threats and beatings by officials. They are petrified at the prospect of going back to a place where thousands from the mainly Muslim Rohingya people were beaten, raped and murdered by security forces and civilians. The chair of a UN fact-finding mission, which described the violence as genocide, warned the security council that “returning them in this context is tantamount to condemning them to life as sub-humans and further mass killing”.
Myanmar claims its military carried out justifiable actions against terrorists – the campaign of violence followed attacks by militants on security posts – and that villagers set fire to their own homes. What better way to show nothing is wrong than by trumpeting the return of refugees? Bangladesh worries that the international community is taking the camps for granted, and its leader, Sheikh Hasina, fears domestic political repercussions in next month’s general election. It is also under pressure from China, which wants to push through the repatriations to protect its sphere of influence and ability to get on with business in Myanmar unhindered by international criticism.
Some hope that Bangladesh is not planning a substantial repatriation, but wants to fend off domestic and foreign pressure and prompt a broader commitment to tackling the future of the refugees by taking token action. One option might be to return the small number of Hindu Rohingyas who fled the violence. Another might be the repatriation of a few hundred Rohingya, portrayed as something more substantial. Even this would place those returned at real risk of violence and facing certain misery. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who went back to Myanmar after a previous wave of violence in 2012 are held in internment camps or villages with tight restrictions on their movements and a lack of even basic services or facilities.
Yet, UN officials and NGOs aside, the international reaction has been muted. At the Asean summit this week, only Malaysia spoke out strongly. The US vice-president, Mike Pence, pressed Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on the Rohingya’s suffering – and the jailing of two Reuters reporters for covering a massacre – but she brushed those concerns aside.
The Rohingya must have the right to return home. But they must be able to do so safely and of their own volition. That is not the case now. Until that time comes, Bangladesh must be given all the support it needs to host them; and forced repatriations must be opposed as unconscionable and unacceptable.