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‘PR campaign’: Rohingya activists slam Myanmar repatriation plan


The Myanmar military’s “pilot project” to repatriate about 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh has been met with skepticism and human rights activists have called it a “PR campaign”.

Last week, a delegation from Myanmar visited the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, home to more than 1 million Rohingya, to interview potential candidates for their return as early as next month.

Nearly 800,000 Rohingya fled their homeland in Myanmar in 2017 after a brutal military crackdown in which thousands of ethnic Muslim minorities were killed, raped and their property burned as part of a scorched earth campaign.

Tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya took refuge in Bangladesh before the 2017 crackdown, which the United Nations says was carried out with “genocidal intent”. In a 2018 report, UN army chief Min Aung Hlaing and other generals called for charges of genocide.

The Rohingya remaining in Myanmar suffer segregation and widespread discrimination, and their citizenship is being revoked. Human rights groups say the measures amount to apartheid.

“We see this step as a PR campaign. If the junta really wants to repatriate the refugees, they already have a list of more than 800,000 refugees from recent years and could have revealed their plan sooner,” Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told Al Jazeera. .

“This decision to repatriate only 1,000 refugees appears to be an attempt to ease pressure from China and other countries,” he said.

‘My heart goes out to my homeland’

Myanmar’s generals seized power in a coup d’état in February 2021, sending the Southeast Asian nation into renewed political turmoil just 10 years after the end of 49 years of strict military rule.

The Myanmar delegation’s visit to the camps is believed to have been brokered by China and facilitated by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Nur Alom, 42, who fled to Bangladesh in September 2017 with his wife and three children from the Maungdaw district of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, told Al Jazeera he is not interested in going back to Myanmar without securing citizenship.

“The Myanmar team has not said a word about whether we will get citizenship. They don’t even call us Rohingya. What guarantee is there that we will be safe when we go back?” said Alom, one of the Rohingya refugees interviewed by the Myanmar delegation.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees have made perilous sea voyages to escape the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. (File: Antara Photo/Rahmad/via Reuters)

Alom said life in the overcrowded refugee camp in Bangladesh was undignified but at least safe.

Noor Kolima, 31, another interviewee, had the same opinion. “My heart goes out to my homeland in Myanmar. Of course I want to go back. But the memories of what we experienced there a few years ago haunt me,” she told Al Jazeera.

“They (Myanmar team) asked many questions but did not answer our questions. We also have questions. We want to make sure we return to a safe place,” she added.

Deutsche Welle reported that about 3,000 Rohingya were shortlisted for the verification process. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the figure.

Nay San, the activist, said the verification process was opaque and no one was willing to listen to the demands of the Rohingya refugees.

“The junta has no plan to restore citizenship and rights to the Rohingya. The junta has not stated that returnees will be allowed to return to their original places or be allowed freedom of movement,” he said.

“There are many other reasons why refugees cannot trust the junta, especially as the genocide is still ongoing. Rohingya refugees who returned without official permission were arrested and sentenced, and those fleeing to Malaysia are also arrested and sentenced to five years.”

The biggest concern, he said, “is that there is no guarantee that the cycle of violence against the Rohingya will not repeat.”

A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
More than a million Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in Bangladesh (File: Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera)

Repatriation is ‘only possible solution’

Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Commissioner for Refugees, Aid and Repatriation (RRRC), told Al Jazeera that the Myanmar delegation did not have the authority to commit to a possible repatriation date.

“They were only here to verify information from the Rohingya refugees selected for a pilot repatriation project,” Rahman said. “We have been told that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar will contact us about this.”

Repatriation, he told Al Jazeera, is the “only possible solution” for the Rohingya refugees. “It’s their citizens, they need to take them back.”

Dhaka has significantly restricted their movement and continues to press for their return.

A prominent Rohingya diaspora group has also criticized the planned repatriation – its third since 2017 – saying Myanmar’s military rulers had planned “symbolic” repatriations to tie in with the genocide case heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on April 24. ) resumes.

“Taking back a few refugees, even if it is less than one percent of the population, will allow Myanmar to counter-argue under the very false pretenses of being sincere about the return of refugees,” said the Arakan Rohingya. National Alliance (ARNA). ) said in a statement.

In a signed statement, some 200 civil society organizations condemned the UN’s participation in the process.

The UNHCR defended its decision to facilitate the Myanmar delegation, saying it “supports efforts that can lead to the verification of all refugees and pave the way for their eventual return”.

However, the agency reiterated that conditions in Myanmar are currently unsafe for Rohingya.

Nay San said all Rohingya rights, including citizenship rights, had to be restored before they could return to their original places in Myanmar.

“Rohingya should be given equal rights with other ethnic groups in Myanmar,” Nay San said.

“If these rights are guaranteed, all refugees will be ready to return.”

Faisal Mahmud contributed to this report from Dhaka


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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