UNHCR comes under fire for participating in Rohingya Repatriation Project
Earlier this month, on 5th May, a delegation of 20 Rohingya refugees were taken to visit resettlement camps in their home country of Myanmar, as part of a combined initiative between the Myanmar junta authorities and Bangladeshi government officials. The visit was coordinated and sanctioned by both China and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Just a couple of months earlier at the beginning of March, pleas were publicly made by the Bangladeshi Minister for Foreign Affairs to ‘expedite the repatriation to their homeland in Myanmar, of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas’, - a million of which were currently living in the Cox Bazaar refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The visiting Rohingya delegation, were taken to camps in the Rakhine State township, a district from where they and over a million other Rohingyas had fled three years earlier, following a waged campaign by military units engaged in systematic persecution, group killings and mass rape against the entire Rohingya community. The campaign, which saw the exodus of over 800,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh in 2017, has been described by many human rights organisations as bearing all the signs of a genocide campaign.
The visiting delegates were taken to new ‘resettlement camps’ built by the military on land that previously housed Rohingya villages, but which post the exodus had been burnt to the ground, bulldozed and the area penned in within barbed wire fencing. These ‘transit camps, the ‘Hla Poe Kaung Transit Camp’ and the ‘Kyein Chaung Resettlement Camp’, were located in the Maungdaw township. According to the delegates, the camps resembled the identical design and structure of notorious squalid camps which had been established over a decade earlier in Sittwe, constructed to hold in arbitrary detention as many as 140,000 Rohingyas, as part of a forced internment programme and described by Human Rights Watch as an ‘ethnic cleansing campaign’ in its 169-page, October 2020 report:
The recent visit was meant to be a part of a pilot programme – with initial plans to trigger the resettlement of 1,100 Rohingyas, but which is intended to be the first stage of the mass repatriation and settlement of the now over a million refugees currently living in camps in Cox Bazaar.
The Repatriation Project is just a pr exercise
The pilot programme has been branded a PR exercise by the many human rights groups who have lined up to condemn all attempts to repatriate the refugees, without obtaining cast iron assurances from the ruling military government, that any return will be ‘safe and sustainable’. They have recognised that the good will of the current Bangladeshi hosts is wearing thin, but say that to send the refugees back to an obviously hostile environment and into the control of ‘a ruthless Myanmar Junta…will simply be setting the stage for the next devastating exodus’.
201 Civil society groups condemn UN Involvement
In a published letter, 201 civil society organisations ‘strongly condemned the UN’s involvement in the so-called pilot project to repatriate refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar’. The letter read:
‘The undersigned organizations are appalled by the UN’s clandestine participation and involvement in facilitating a visit of Myanmar military junta to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh… This is yet another extension of the long-standing pattern of the UN’s deliberately opaque involvement in the attempts to forcibly repatriate Rohingya refugees in absence of conditions in Myanmar for their safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return. This exposes the UN’s lack of so-called “neutrality” in Myanmar, and its ongoing failure to uphold basic humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and “do no harm”, further eroding Myanmar people’s trust in the work of the UN.
We will not return - 'It's another trap'
The visiting Rohingya delegates, now returned to their refugee camp homes in Bangladesh, spoke of the fact that the conditions in the so-called resettlement camps were effectively detention centres and they were adamant that without full citizenship rights, their return would be completely unsafe. One of the Rohingya delegates commented:
‘It’s another trap by Myanmar to take us back and then continue the abuses like they have been doing to us for decades.’
They said that they had asked why the ‘resettlement camps’ had been built on the sites of their former villages and were told that the Myanmar authorities had no other options. They refused, said the delegates, to answer any questions as to whether the Rohingyas would be given back their land. They had asked:
‘If these camps are temporary, then why haven’t the Rohingya living in the central Rakhine camps been able to return to their original villages.’
The fears of the Rohingya refugees have been compounded by the fact that the same Generals who instigated the purge in 2017, have since seized power and overthrown in 2021, the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi - returning the country to military rule not seen since the 1970’s. There is suspicion among various diaspora organisations that the repatriation plans are meant to be a token gesture to counter the impact of the International Court Hearing on Genocide, which was scheduled for 24th April this year.
The refugees and human rights groups will be well aware that since the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, the scale of violence and brutality of the military has spread to other regions outside Rakhine state. There have been arbitrary detentions of more than 20,000 civilians; at least 3,000 civilians have been reported killed at the hands of the military during the last two years alone, with over 1.5 million people displaced. Those who have dared to demonstrate against the military consistently run the risk of being arrested or killed and a resurgent, organised resistance movement has gained momentum in Myanmar across various sectors. Disparate fighting militias and political groups have unusually joined forces or agreed to cooperate, in order to topple the military regime.