Over 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar. Only a few dozen have returned

Fear and mistrust preventing refugees from leaving Bangladesh camps to return home

Rohingya refugees attend a ceremony in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, marking the second anniversary of the exodus from Myanmar. Photograph: Allison Joyce/Getty

Rohingya refugees attend a ceremony in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, marking the second anniversary of the exodus from Myanmar. Photograph: Allison Joyce/Getty

 

Rusting behind barbed wire, rows of trailers at a repatriation centre sit empty and uninviting, evocative of a prison awaiting its inmates. In a deserted arrivals trailer, uniformed officers loiter at their desks, expectant grins on their faces. Signs explain the steps involved in welcoming Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar: Stand here for photographs, go there for identity cards.

Men stand guard with security wands, as if this were an international airport rather than an inhospitable holding pen in a desolate frontier. What is so obviously missing at the Nga Khu Ya repatriation centre are the Rohingya themselves.

Ever since more than 730,000 Rohingya started fleeing to Bangladesh, two years ago on Sunday, to escape a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing, governments from both countries have repeatedly vowed that a return of the Muslim minority to Myanmar was imminent.

The Nga Khu Ya repatriation centre for Rohingya returning from Bangladesh in Northern Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times
The Nga Khu Ya repatriation centre for Rohingya returning from Bangladesh in Northern Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times
Rohingya refugee children in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. File photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Rohingya refugee children in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. File photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

But that promise has been broken, time and again. The Rohingya have not returned by the hundreds of thousands or even by the thousands. In fact, they have hardly come back at all. After all the assurances that it was safe for them to return to Myanmar, only a few dozen have done so.

The first batch of about 1,200 returnees was supposed to be sent home in January 2018. That plan was delayed by the Bangladeshi government after an international outcry over the idea of returning traumatised victims to the centre of one of the worst eruptions of ethnic cleansing this century.

After the two countries promised in April 2018 to proceed with safe, voluntary and dignified repatriations, several new deadlines were set. None was met. Most recently, the Myanmar government said the repatriation of 3,450 Rohingya would begin on Thursday last. That target, too, passed with no movement across the border.

Maintaining the fiction that repatriations are about to occur is politically useful for both sides. Myanmar, which United Nations officials say should be tried on genocide charges over the orchestrated killings that began August 25th, 2017, is keen to prove it is not a human rights pariah.

Bangladesh, struggling with overpopulation and poverty, wants to reassure its citizens that scarce funds are not being diverted to refugees. But the charade at Nga Khu Ya, with its corroded buildings devoid of any Rohingya presence, proves the lie in the repatriation commitment. The place is so quiet that a dog snoozes at the main entrance, undisturbed.

Even the repatriation centre’s watchtowers are empty of soldiers. There is no one to watch.

Tragicomic script

The lack of returnees on Thursday followed the same tragicomic script as previous efforts to get the Rohingya home. First, Myanmar unilaterally announced a date for repatriation, but approved the return of only a tiny fraction of those eligible.

Bangladesh, the Muslim-majority nation where most of the Rohingya have sought refuge, then said it supported the idea. “I’m very positive,” foreign affairs minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters in early August. “I’m expecting that we can start this month.”

But the Rohingya – hundreds of thousands of whom are squeezed into overflowing camps in Bangladesh – baulked, having received scant consultation about their own futures. Not a single Rohingya boarded the five buses and two trucks that were prepared on Thursday to transfer them over the border to Myanmar.

A Rohingya Muslim reads from the Quran in one of the few undamaged mosques in Maungdaw, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times
A Rohingya Muslim reads from the Quran in one of the few undamaged mosques in Maungdaw, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times

International human rights groups stepped in to urge caution about returning anyone, having interviewed Rohingya who were terrified, not joyful, to learn that they were on the repatriation list.

On Thursday, Radhika Coomaraswamy, an expert with the UN fact-finding mission on the Myanmar violence, said conditions were not conducive for the return of Rohingya. “We have been shown satellite imagery which shows the situation in northern Rakhine, which is basically where all the villages have been bulldozed, not a tree standing,” she said at a news conference at the UN headquarters in New York.

That left Myanmar with the perfect opportunity to declare itself surprised that the Rohingya were not coming back. “I have no idea why repatriation has not happened yet,” said Win Myint, a spokesman for the government in Rakhine state, which Myanmar’s Rohingya once called home. “Everything is ready on our side.”

This scenario has played out before, with similarly hollow outcomes. In November, Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told the New York Times that a round of repatriation would begin within a couple of days. Over a 15-day period, 2,165 people would be processed through Nga Khu Ya repatriation camp, he promised. Then, soon after, another 5,000 and so on.

“They can apply for citizenship,” Myat Aye said. “They can live in the place where they’re originally from. If there is no housing there, they can live near where they’re from.”

The government’s own facts indicate this is a fantasy. According to Myanmar immigration authorities’ figures, from May 2018 to May 2019 only 185 Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh. Even that tiny number is inflated. Of those 185 people, 92 had been caught by authorities in Myanmar while trying to escape the country by boat. Sixty-two others had just been released from jails in Myanmar.

Minuscule numbers

Only 31 Rohingya – of the nearly three-quarters of a million who left Myanmar – had returned “of their own volition”, according to the government. When pressed to account for such minuscule numbers, Myanmar authorities accuse Rohingya militants and Muslim charities operating in the refugee camps in Bangladesh of dissuading people from going back.

“Muslim terrorists in the camps say that it is not safe to return, so people don’t dare,” said Soe Aung, head of the General Administration Department in Maungdaw, a township in Rakhine that was once overwhelmingly Rohingya, “even though it’s totally safe.”

Assurances that Myanmar has laid out the welcome mat have come from none other than Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto head of the civilian government and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. “The state counsellor already decided to receive back the people who lived in Myanmar and left the country for some reason,” said Myat Aye, referring to Suu Kyi by her formal title. “There is no reason not to come back.”

But the Rohingya’s dread about what might await them is understandable, given what drove their flight in the first place – and what has happened, and not happened, in Myanmar since the exodus.

After a band of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army encampment August 25th, 2017, a burst of brutality against the Muslim minority followed within hours: mass executions, rape and the burning of hundreds of villages by security forces. Buddhist mobs participated in the bloodletting.

Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières says that at least 6,700 Rohingya met violent deaths in the month after the killings began. While the Myanmar government defended its actions as “clearance operations” targeting only militants, the large build-up of troops in the weeks before the attack – and the military helicopters that rained down rockets on villagers in the days afterward – suggest a highly co-ordinated, long-planned campaign of ethnic cleansing that had been waiting for the right catalysing event.

The Rohingya who escaped to Bangladesh now live in a teeming, squalid settlement – the world’s largest refugee encampment. Human trafficking is rife, with girls destined for brothels and men for indentured servitude in southeast Asia. When the monsoons descend on the camps, sewage and mud mix into a disease-breeding brew. Landslides are common, and Rohingya have even been killed by rampaging elephants. There is little, if any, incentive to stay.

But despite these intolerable conditions, Myanmar looks worse to many refugees, who are bewildered at the idea that they should return to a country whose government has refused to admit that atrocities were committed.

“How can we believe those who killed our nearest and dearest?” said Ramjan Ali, sole survivor of a family that was massacred in the village of Tula Toli.

Those Rohingya who stayed in northern Rakhine state after the killing began are marooned in communities cut off from jobs, education and basic services. Since June, the region’s mobile internet connection has been severed. Incarceration rates among Rohingya men are high, with many accused of terrorist activity.

Paraded

Those released from jail are sometimes paraded as repatriated Rohingya, even if they have never left Myanmar. “I miss my home a lot,” said Saiful Islam, a Rohingya leader in the camps in Bangladesh. “But I don’t want to go back to a place where my family could be killed.”

Any Rohingya who did return to Myanmar would find a transformed landscape. Drive across the salty marsh of northern Rakhine, and the silence is overwhelming. About one million Rohingya once lived in this area. Now most are gone, the occasional carcass of a burned mosque or stand of charred palms the only evidence that they existed.

The government has funnelled money into infrastructure development in Rakhine: new power stations, government buildings and, most of all, military and border guard bases. But many of those new facilities have been built on land emptied by ethnic cleansing.

Analysis of satellite imagery by the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that nearly 60 Rohingya settlements were razed last year, well after the violence peaked in 2017. Destruction of Rohingya villages continued into this year, the study found.

Officials in Myanmar have never been clear about where, exactly, returnees would live – even as they showed off rows of prefabricated houses supposedly built for repatriated families. In a troubling precedent, about 120,000 Rohingya from central Rakhine state who were targeted in a 2012 conflict have been confined to internment camps for the past seven years. Their businesses have been taken over by members of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. Most of their homes have been destroyed.

As construction transforms Rakhine, bringing Buddhist pagodas to areas where the Islamic call to prayer once resounded, the beneficiaries of the building boom are companies run by cronies of the military, which still dominates the government.

On August 5th, a UN fact-finding mission released a report recommending targeted sanctions against these military-linked firms, which it said had helped in “re-engineering the region in a way that erases evidence of Rohingya belonging to Myanmar”.

The United Nations says no refugees should have to return to a place where their safety and security are not assured. Doing so is called refoulement, and it’s against international law. But Myanmar has done little to reassure the Rohingya that the conditions that led to the mass killings have changed.

The country has steadfastly refused to admit that its security forces, which engaged in widespread sexual violence and sprayed fleeing children with gunfire, according to Rohingya testimony and investigations by human rights groups, did anything wrong.

“Not a single innocent Muslim was killed,” said Soe Aung, the Maungdaw township official. Aung San Suu Kyi has declined to hold the military responsible for the violence, even as UN-appointed investigators recommended last year that commanders be investigated for crimes against humanity.

Considered immigrants

Despite the fact that Myanmar clearly is their home, most Rohingya are officially considered immigrants from Bangladesh in the country illegally. And before any are accepted for repatriation, they must often come up with evidence proving that they came from Myanmar. That’s a tall order for refugees who fled burning homes.

More controversially, those who wish to return must accept identity cards that critics say will make their statelessness official. Myanmar’s government does not even accept the name “Rohingya”. Instead, those who return are issued documents that identify them as Bengali, implying they are foreign interlopers from Bangladesh, not an ethnic group from Rakhine.

“We are Rohingya,” whispered Abdul Kadir, an imam from a northern Rakhine village who has been unable to flee, in broken English. “No say Rohingya in Myanmar. No say.”

“‘Rohingya’ is not real,” said Kyaw Kyaw Khine, deputy head of immigration at Nga Khu Ya repatriation camp. “Why do foreigners use this word?”

The official narrative in Myanmar goes like this: The Rohingya burned down their own homes to garner international sympathy and to feast on plentiful aid rations in Bangladesh provided by Muslim nations. Myanmar officials also accuse Bangladeshi officials of dawdling and wonder if they are reluctant to let the Rohingya leave.

“Maybe they want people to stay there,” said Kyaw Sein, an administrator at the Nga Khu Ya camp. The truth could not be more different. Bangladeshis have displayed tremendous hospitality to the Rohingya, who poured over the border in the fastest inflow of refugees in a generation. But the country’s patience has worn thin.

Bangladeshi authorities keep threatening to resettle the Rohingya to an island that is little more than a cyclone-prone sandbar in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh does not consider the vast majority of Rohingya to be refugees, lest that designation cement their right to live in exile forever. As a consequence, they have no legal right to study or work outside the camps.

Myanmar police shelter in the shade of a tree near Inn Din village, Myanmar. Over 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh two years ago to escape a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times
Myanmar police shelter in the shade of a tree near Inn Din village, Myanmar. Over 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh two years ago to escape a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times

Muslim extremists stalk camp mosques, promising salvation through militancy. Hopelessness is the only plentiful commodity. “Will my children live the rest of their lives here?” asked Islam, the Rohingya camp leader. “Is this the only life I can give them?”

No one wants the Rohingya, least of all their homeland. – New York Times

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