Conflicts & War

Rohingya refugees await safe return, justice 3 years after Myanmar exodus

By Azad Majumder and Mratt Kyaw Thu

Dhaka/Yangon, Aug 25 (efe-epa).- From the overcrowded camps in Bangladesh that house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, Mohammad Jubair on Tuesday marked a grim milestone: the third anniversary of the Myanmar military offensive that led to the exodus of at least 738,000 members of this mainly-Muslim minority from Rakhain state, where they had lived for generations.

Restrictions imposed in the camps to contain the spread of the coronavirus have prevented him and other refugees from taking part in protests to demand security and citizenship guarantees from Myanmar as pre-conditions for their repatriation, as he did last year at the massive demonstration involving some 100,000 Rohingya.

“I will not go to work or join any protest on Tuesday and will only pray for our people from home. It is a very painful day for us as the Myanmar military killed our people and drove us away from our own land,” Jubair told EFE.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya families like Jubair’s began fleeing to Bangladesh on Aug. 25, 2017 when the Burmese military responded to a series of attacks on police and border checkpoints by a Rohingya rebel group in the Rakhine region of western Myanmar with a show of terrifying violence that saw entire villages and towns razed.

The campaign was described by the UN as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and possible genocide, and in January this year, the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ordered Myanmar to prevent crimes against Rohingyas on its territory. Myanmar, which considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship and restricts their movements, has denied the charges.

Ever since they were forced to cross the border to save their lives, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been confined to camps for three years and, since last year’s massive demonstration, have been without internet access.

“They are passing idle time in camps (…) and they cannot move outside. Their rights to communicate have been restricted with the internet curb. Rohingyas certainly deserve a better life,” Bangladeshi human rights activist Nur Khan Liton told EFE.

Jubair said life for him and his family in the camps is “very difficult”

“We are living in a small shelter, our children are not getting any education and their life is getting ruined.”

But while Jubair hopes to return home to Rakhain, the pandemic has further hampered already complicated negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar on a new attempt at repatriating some of the Rohingya, after no volunteers agreed to return during the previous two attempts, citing fears for their safety once they arrived back in Myanmar.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 86 COVID-19 cases have been detected in the camps so far, and six refugees have died.

“While the number of cases in the camps is low, we are taking the situation very seriously and remain vigilant,” Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, a spokesperson of UNHCR, told EFE.

It seems unlikely that a third attempt at repatriating refugees will be made in the near future with all attention focused on preventing coronavirus from spiraling out of control inside the camps.

Despite the stalled talks, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder told EFE that the country has not abandoned negotiations with Myanmar.

“We have maintained regular communication with Myanmar authorities over repatriation. It’s just the pandemic that prevented us from holding any formal talks recently. But it can be resumed anytime,” he said.

A major sticking point in the repatriation process has been the lack of willing Rohingya refugees, who want guarantees that their security and livelihoods will be protected and that they will be finally granted full citizenship.

Rights groups have accused the Burmese government of failing to uphold the ICJ’s January ruling.

Amnesty International said on Tuesday that the Myanmar authorities are violating the ICJ’s order to protect the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state and that the Rohingya and other minorities are getting caught up in the ongoing armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Rakhine ethnic armed group, Arakan Army (AA).

“It’s like we’ve been stuck in a new war after one war is done. The AA and the Tatmadaw (the official name of the Myanmar armed forces) had been fighting almost everyday around our village,” U Shawfi, a Rohingya leader of Phon Nyo Leik village in northern Rakhine, told EFE.

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