KUTUPALONG CAMP, Bangladesh – Rohingya refugee Mohammed* says he does not want to stay in Bangladesh for long, but is clear about the guarantees that he needs before he will consider taking his family back to their native Myanmar.
“We will return to Myanmar, but only when we have our safety guaranteed, and our rights recognized, just like other ethnic groups there,” he says.
The soft-spoken 43-year-old is among 655,000 refugees who have fled to Bangladesh since violence erupted in the Maungdaw area of northern Rakhine state five months ago and reported that troops and mobs attacked and killed residents and torched their villages.
As talks intensify over the prospect of repatriation, refugees in what has become the world’s largest refugee settlement have held a number of demonstrations in the past week. Their message is clear: There can be no returns without the questions of citizenship, rights and restitution being addressed.
“We have showed our voice. They know our views,” says Mohammed, one of the protest organizers. “We have a petition with 20,000 signatures with our demands on repatriation that we have sent to the authorities.”
“We will return to Myanmar, but only when we have our safety guaranteed, and our rights recognized.”
Discussions on the modalities of repatriation have been taking place between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, even as new arrivals continue to flow into Bangladesh, though at a much slower pace than in the early weeks of the crisis.
UNHCR, which is not party to the bilateral arrangements, has cautioned that any decision to return should be based on the refugees’ informed and voluntary choice. While at this time the UN Refugee Agency does does not have access to any areas of return, it believes that conditions in Rakhine state are not yet conducive to the safe and sustainable return of refugees.
The discussions – to which refugees are not party – have caused enormous anxiety among the refugees who have not been consulted nor received any information about the plan. Some are strongly opposed to return.
“How can we go back? It’s like sending us back to be killed there,” says mother-of-four, Fatima,* who fled from Andang village in Maungdaw. Her voice rising with passion, she continues: “It is better to be killed. If we die here in Bangladesh, at least we can have a proper religious burial – we cannot do that back home.”
Rohingya women and children wait in a queue for an aid distribution at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Roger Arnold
Others cite lessons from history. Abdullah,* 52, explains how we was forced to flee his homeland into Bangladesh three times – the first time, in 1978, as a young boy, then again in 1991.
“I spent three years here, but I agreed to go back to Myanmar voluntarily in 1993. I was worried about my property and farm,” he recalled, speaking at a small bamboo shelter in the overcrowded Kutupalong camp.
However, the root causes that forced him to flee were not resolved: “My hopes of a better life faded after two years when the situation worsened. We saw all kinds of torture, forced labour and military operations. They took our land, our crops, our cattle. We were threatened and beaten.”
Regretting his previous decision to return, Abdullah is adamant that he will only consider returning home this time if fundamental changes are happening. These include gaining citizenship rights and having their legal status resolved; receiving assurances that their safety and protection will be guaranteed on return, with many calling for the presence of UNHCR – and even UN peacekeepers – to monitor the situation and provide safeguards. They also want help to rebuild their homes, regain their land, and access to basic services.
“I want freedom of movement and to play an active part in daily life, I want access to all services.”
Selling vegetables from a makeshift stall on the roadside, 22 year-old Nurul,* from Mijjali Para in Maungdaw, is equally clear about what he wants. “We fled to save our lives. My house was burned,” he explains. “If I go back, I want my Rohingya identity to be recognized the way it is for any other ethnic group. I want freedom of movement and to play an active part in daily life, I want access to all services like a normal citizen of Myanmar,” he said.
UNHCR has advocated for unhindered humanitarian access to areas of return in Myanmar in order to assess the situation and help with rebuilding efforts. It is also urging the authorities to promptly implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, which include ensuring peace and security for all communities in Rakhine State, reducing communal divisions and seeking solutions for the citizenship status of Muslim communities.
Mohammed sums it up simply: “We are human and they are human. We must have the same rights.”