The repatriation of an estimated 720,000 Rohingya who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh amid a brutal military crackdown was to have begun yesterday. Not even one turned up at the border transit point.
You might think that’s because they’re terrified of returning to a country where villages have been leveled and massacres of unarmed civilians documented, but Dr. Myint Aye, Union Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, has a different theory: they’re being intimidated by fellow refugees.
Speaking to reporters in Sittwe, the minister insisted that many, in fact, wanted to return, but were being stopped from leaving or filling out the necessary paperwork for repatriation.
“If you said that you wanted to come back, they [other refugees] will blame you, bully you, and even kill you in the refugee camps. Even if they wanted to come back, they are scared and suffering over there,” Dr. Myint Aye told Radio Free Asia.
“It’s not that they don’t believe in Myanmar; there are a lot of people over there who believe in us and want to come back.”
Bangladeshi officials waited hours at a border transit point where the first returnees were expected to cross into Myanmar. The attempted repatriation effort went ahead despite warnings from the UN that Rohingya Muslims faced “fresh prosecution if they went back.”
The only Rohingya to show up were the hundreds who staged a protest at the checkpoint, shouting “We will not go.”
There was reportedly widespread fear among those included on an initial Bangladesh repatriation list of 2,260 people, with many going into hiding.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner yesterday told AFP that his team was “completely ready,” adding that “If we get anyone willing to go, we will carry them to the border point with respect and dignity.”
But “no one turned up voluntarily,” he conceded, adding they were awaiting instructions from the foreign ministry as how to proceed.
On Myanmar’s side, officials were waiting all day at the Taung Pyo Letwe Reception Center in Maungdaw, Rakhine.
When no returnees showed up, Myanmar officials were swift to blame Bangladesh, calling their preparation “weak regarding the logistical arrangements” and accused the UNHCR of interfering with the repatriation process.
“We think the UNHCR should not be a barrier for those who really want to return,” he added.
While the UN has called for a genocide investigation, Myanmar still refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing regarding the treatment of the Rohingya, while many who fled Myanmar last year have recounted horrific tales of rape, murder and destroyed homes.
Additional reporting by AFP.