Plans for a second attempt at repatriating Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar have spread panic in the world’s largest refugee settlement, home to 1.2 million people, prompting humanitarian officials to reassure families that no one will be forced to return.
Last week, news spread through the sprawling temporary camps in southern Bangladesh that the Myanmar government had created a list of 3,450 refugees who were eligible to return with their families.
But hardly any refugees are willing to go back to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they have suffered systematic persecution and hundreds of thousands fled a 2017 government offensive that the United Nations termed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
An earlier attempt at repatriating 2,200 Rohingya families, in November 2018, was halted after protests by refugees and criticism from advocacy groups that argued that Myanmar had not created safe conditions for their return.
Increasingly seen as a burden by their hosts in Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugees reacted in fear to the news of possible repatriation, worried they would be forcibly sent back. Fearing that their names might be on the list, some male member of families have gone into hiding while female members say they are considering suicide.
“I will mix poison in the food. I will kill myself, my children, my entire family if I am forced to leave,” said Fatima Noor, a 50-year-old resident of Camp 24, one of three camps from which the first group of eligible returnees is due to be drawn.
The names are expected to be made public on Thursday. More than 20,300 families live in the three camps.
Responding to the panic, Bangladeshi authorities fanned out Monday along with U.N. refugee officers to announce from loudspeakers that no one will be forcibly sent back to Rakhine. U.N. personnel also made door-to-door visits to explain the repatriation process.
In private conversations, aid workers and Bangladeshi officials acknowledged that they don’t expect any refugees to accept the terms of repatriation.
“No one, in no way, will be forced to return,” said Shamimul Haq Pavel, an official with the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the Bangladesh government agency overseeing the humanitarian response.
“This is an absolutely voluntary decision, and families will be allowed to change their mind at the last minute,” Pavel said.
Adding to the anxiety was that the refugees learned of the repatriation plan through news reports last week, days before the second anniversary of the start of the devastating Myanmar offensive in Rakhine. Nearly 800,000 Rohingyas fled Rakhine for Bangladesh starting in August 2017 and have been marooned in overcrowded, flood-prone camps in Cox’s Bazar, along the southeastern border of Bangladesh.
Refugee advocacy groups have demanded that Myanmar guarantee their safety, freedom of movement and a pathway to citizenship before they are repatriated. The last two have been legally denied to Rohingya for years, and Myanmar, which refuses to recognize the group as legal residents, has not signaled any changes.
Rohingya community leaders expressed alarm at not being consulted about repatriation, especially after the last effort provoked mass outrage.
“The repatriation process cannot progress if the Rohingya community is not consulted,” said Mohib Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. “We have no information about where they are sending us. They will kill us if we go back to Rakhine. We will protest for our rights until our last breath.”
Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said the agency would hold confidential meetings with interested refugees to discuss the details of repatriation, including a second meeting to ensure they are going back voluntarily.
The U.N. drew criticism last year for signing an agreement with Myanmar to support “the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees,” and officials insisted current plans called for allowing only small numbers of Rohingya to go back.
“[The U.N. refugee agency] has stated many times that it does not believe the current situation is ready for large-scale returns,” Donovan said. “We nonetheless respect the right of individual refugees to return should they wish to do so, and will provide support where we can.”
The plan accelerated last month after Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Beijing and urged China, a close ally of Myanmar, to help resolve the refugee crisis. Bangladesh is struggling to cope with the economic and environmental impact of hosting more than 1 million refugees. Most of the bill is being paid by international donors, but a response plan launched in February that called for $920 million in funds had received less than one-third that amount by June.
Hasina’s visit led to a flurry of diplomatic activity, with Myanmar sending a 19-member delegation to visit the camps in Bangladesh, where they met Rohingya leaders and assured them of their safety if they chose to return to Rakhine.
Bangladeshi authorities handed over a list of 6,000 refugee families, of which the Myanmar government approved 3,450 for return. Aid officials say the lists might not include all members of a particular family because the refugees arrived in waves and often registered in different camps, leading to concerns that repatriation could once again split up families.
In recent months, violence has flared in parts of the state between ethnic Rakhine insurgents and Myanmar government forces, prompting the government to suspend cellphone internet service in several townships including those where Rohingya would be expected to return.
Activist groups have argued that the information clampdown could provide cover for further human rights abuses.
Inside the three tense camps, Rohingya leaders are preparing for mass protests on Sunday to mark the start of the Myanmar crackdown. Camp 24, where Fatima Noor lives, was eerily quiet on Monday.
“My life is over. I will likely die in these camps,” she said. “If I went back, I’ll be condemning my children and my grandchildren to the same life I had in Rakhine.”
Krishnan is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Singapore.