Bangkok: A Rohingya leader has been shot dead as tensions rise over a plan to send hundreds of thousands of refugees living in sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh back to their homelands in Myanmar.
Rohingya militants have hit out at the repatriation plan set to begin on Tuesday, saying it is aimed at locking the Muslim minority in long-term camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
In a statement on Twitter the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) said the “deceitfully and crookedly (repatriation) offering” will lock Rohingya into “so-called temporary camps…instead of allowing them to resettle in their own ancestral lands and villages.”
Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, said after a two-day visit to the camps holding almost one million Rohingya that the situation is not conducive for refugees to the return after they had fled mass atrocities, including the slaughter of children, rapes and burnings.
“First of all, where would they go back to? They’ve lost their livelihood, they’ve lost their crops, they’ve lost their fields,” she told reporters.
“All the rice is now reportedly being sold elsewhere to other countries. They’ve lost their homes, so the rebuilding process is going to be huge, and the people should not be subjected to living in another camp-like situation,” she said.
Lee also warned the return of any refugees to their homes should be voluntary, stressing there needs to be “informed consent…so they know exactly what they are going back to.”
Myanmar and Bangladesh last week signed an agreement to set-up two reception centres and a temporary camp near their common border to begin processing returns this week.
Given the huge numbers of refugees, officials said the job would take two years if it went smoothly.
But many Rohingya have declared they would prefer to die on Bangladesh soil rather than return to Rakhine unless they are granted citizenship and other basic rights they have been denied for decades, and can return to their own lands.
Myanmar has said the returnees would initially go to a transit camp capable of holding 30,000 refugees before they are allowed to return to their “place of origin” or their “nearest place of origin.”
The UN refugee agency UNHCR is not involved in the repatriation plan and has warned Rohingya should not be forced to return until there are “basic elements of lasting solutions in place” in Rakhine, home to more than one million Rohingya.
Even as officials prepared the repatriation centres dozens of Rohingya families continued to cross from Rakhine into Bangladesh, many of them telling reporters they were escaping on-going repression.
Officials from UN and aid agencies working in the camps say tensions that could spark communal violence have been rising among the refugees for weeks.
Reuters quoted Rohingya leaders saying Bangladesh soldiers have threatened to seize cards providing by the World Food Programme allowing them to receive food and other supplies unless families agree to return.
A spokesman for the Bangladesh army denied its soldiers made the threat.
Refugees told officials that 35 year-old Rohingya leader Mohammad Yusuf was shot dead at the weekend in Ukhiya camp after being attacked by members of a gang opposing any repatriations, according to the Dhaka Tribune newspaper.
Another leader was also attacked but survived.
Security experts say it is likely that militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army have training bases in Bangladesh and are seeking to recruit fighters from Rohingya in the camps.
Between 10 and 20 fighters attacked a Myanmar army convoy near the Bangladesh border on January 5, speaking fears that ARSA is building the capability to mount cross-border operations from Bangladesh.
Increasing cross-border strikes would likely destabilise the border region where cultural and religious fault-lines run deep.
Since August more than 655,000 Rohingya have fled what the UN has described as “text-book ethnic cleansing” and most likely crimes against humanity in Rakhine.
Conditions in the camps are worsening by the day.
Yanghee Lee, who has been banned from going to Myanmar by the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, said that with Bangladesh’s approaching monsoon season the camps “will be witnesses landslides and we may see a huge number of casualties.”
She also warned of the further spread of diseases which have killed thousands.