Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the international community to keep up the pressure on Myanmar to take back Rohingya Muslims who have taken refuge in her country.
Bangladesh has given shelter on humanitarian grounds to more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims – believed to be the world’s most persecuted minority – since August 2017.
Hasina made the call when Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO-SEARO (World Health Organization, South-East Asia Regional Office), met her at Gono Bhaban, the Prime Minister’s official residence on March 28.
The Prime Minister said her government has completed biometric registration of Rohingyas who fled Myanmar after facing atrocities in Rakhine State, the Daily Star quoted the PM’s Press Secretary Ihsanul Karim as saying.
Rohingya are an ethnic group, mostly Muslims, who have lived in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since the 12th century, yet they are not counted amongst the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. They mostly live in Rakhine State – one of the poorest regions in the country – and have been denied citizenship since 1982.
On 25 August 2017, Myanmar’s army launched a military operation against the Rohingya civilian population across northern Rakhine State after the armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked around 30 security force outposts.
After months of discussions, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in January on the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. Myanmar agreed to accept 1,500 Rohingya every week, meaning all the refugees were expected to return within two years.
However, experts believe that Myanmar is in no mood to take the Rohingyas back. The refugees, victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign, themselves are unsure if they want to return to an unsafe land.
The Daily Star listed the following reasons that expose Myanmar’s intentions: “Myanmar has: (i) deployed troops near the Bangladesh border – where Rohingyas have taken shelter – calling it an “anti-terrorism” operation, (ii) moved ethnic Rakhine Buddhists to villages cleared of and once dominated by Rohingyas, and (iii) verified less than 400 Rohingya refugees for repatriation, blaming Bangladesh for the delay.”
A report in the Washington Post said that “Myanmar’s military is fortifying its border with Bangladesh with a new fence, security forces and land mines, inflaming tensions with its neighbor and sending a ‘keep out’ message to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees it drove from the country”.
The report added, “The chain-link fence, reinforced with barbed wire, anchored in concrete and buttressed in some sections with bunkers and military posts, now runs for much of the 170-mile border.”
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government says it will allow the return of Rohingya who can prove they are from Myanmar. Media reports say her government has rejected almost all of the first batch of 8,000 applicants even though they have deep roots in the country.
Aid agencies have been tracking crimes against humanity committed by the Mynamar military, including the widespread killing of women, men, and children; rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls; mass deportation; and the systematic burning of villages.
Amnesty International, in a recent report, interviewed 19 newly arrived Rohingya men and women in Bangladesh, who described how forced starvation, abductions and looting of property drove them to flee.
“The ongoing oppression appears to be designed to make northern Rakhine State unliveable for the tens of thousands of Rohingya still there, and follows the Myanmar military’s relentless campaign of violence, which has driven more than 688,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh since August last year,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has reiterated the importance of addressing the root causes of violence in Rakhine State and sought steps from Myanmar for the safe return of Rohingyas to their homeland.
“It is critical that conditions are put in place to ensure that the Rohingyas are able to return home voluntarily in safety and in dignity,” the Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, told a regular briefing at the UN headquarters on March 27.
From the situation on the ground, it now appears the return of all the Rohingya refugees is unlikely to be completed any time soon.