YANGON, Myanmar – A fresh attempt to repatriate some of the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh during the last two years will start again on Thursday amid a sense the program is doomed to fail as few refugees have expressed a willingness to return under current conditions.
Last week the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to repatriate 3,454 Rohingyas who have been verified by the government of Myanmar out of a list of 22,400 people submitted by Dhaka.
Despite living in terrible conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingyas may refuse to go back to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state – where they came from – without safeguards, which Naypyidaw has denied them.
“We have interviewed about 100 families until today, all of them said we have three demands, citizenship, our safety and security and our rights to live in (our) own land,” Abdur Rahim, a leader of the refugee organization Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, told EFE
“If the Myanmar government accepts that, we are ready to go back as soon as possible. We can go even today,” he added.
The Director-General of International Organizations at Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, U Chan Aye, told EFE that the government was set to accept a total of 300 refugees per day, who would be kept at a “processing center.”
He added that the refugees would be able to travel wherever they wanted after getting a national verification card.
This form of identification establishes that the carrier is a resident of Myanmar although it does not amount to citizenship, which has been denied to most Rohingyas since the early 1990s.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a repatriation pact in 2017 and tried to implement it for the first time in October 2018, but none of the refugees agreed to return, and human rights organizations have repeatedly warned that conditions in Myanmar are not favorable for their return.
“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” the South Asia director of nonprofit Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly said in a statement earlier on Saturday
According to a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in July, Myanmar had done very little to prepare for the refugees’ repatriation and that most of the Rohingya villages had not been reconstructed.
In fact, the clearing up and demolition of Rohingya villages had continued in 2018 and 2019 in residential areas where the persecuted minority had lived.
The Rohingya are a mainly Muslim minority which has lived in the Rakhine state for many centuries but that are considered illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by Myanmar authorities.
In 2017, after a series of attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya rebel group, the Myanmar military launched a massive cleaning operation in northern Rakhine, which the United Nations has flagged as having hallmarks of genocide.
Most of the inhabitants of the area – around 738,000 – fled to Bangladesh and currently live in the world’s biggest refugee camp compound, which houses almost a million people, including Rohingyas who had escaped Myanmar after earlier violence.
Around 300,000 Rohingyas continue to live in Rakhine – also known as Arakan – and almost half of them have been living in camps since 2012 when large-scale sectarian violence broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas,
Since then, the Myanmar government has drastically hardened restrictions on Rohingyas’ freedom of movement and strengthened oppressive policies which have continued for decades, with the nonprofit Amnesty International comparing the conditions to the Apartheid.
Earlier this year, a big part of Rakhine also turned into a war zone due to growing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, a Buddhist separatist group fighting for autonomy.
As a result of the conflict with the AA, the government has banned access to internet since June 20 in nine municipalities in Rakhine and the Shin state, which has led to problems for the distribution of humanitarian aid and according to the United Nations, might be used to cover serious human rights violations in the same areas where Rohingya refugees were expected to arrive from Thursday.