Efforts to send Rohingya back over the border are foundering before they have even begun
Ben Doherty in Moinerghona refugee camp, Bangladesh
“They burned my house and my whole village, they stole my crops,” Nagumia says. “I saw them throw the young children, and the old people who could not run, into the fire. They cut people’s throats and their bellies and left them to die. I cannot go back. What am I going to go back to?”
Across the Naf River from Myanmar, in the swollen Rohingya refugee camps huddled against Bangladesh’s border, the wounds are too raw: there is almost no one yet willing to consider return.
“To what?” Nagumia says. “What am I going back to?”
Despite the systemic persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, and the violence of recent months, repatriation remains the primary solution being proposed to the current refugee crisis. Returns have not begun, but the government of Myanmar has signed a formal agreement with Bangladesh to start repatriating some of the more than 800,000 Rohingya who have fled their homes in the country for safety over the border.
Many Rohingya have been in this situation before, having fled violence in the 1970s and the 1990s. Then, they were coaxed back with assurances of safety, only to be attacked again. Now, they trust no promises.
Nagumia, 82, is older than the country he fled, old enough to remember soldier-politician General Aung San – Aung San Suu Kyi’s father – winning his country’s independence.
“In those days our lives were good. Everybody was equal. But now, for Rohingya, there is no peace.”
Nagumia says he would consider return to Myanmar only if Rohingya were recognised as citizens and their safe return guaranteed by the United Nations.
His resistance to repatriation is near universal at the vast camps all along the border.
“If I die here, they can put me in the ground and I can be buried in peace. Back there, I will not get that,” one refugee says.
Several refugees mention dying on Bangladeshi soil as preferable to a return home.
“I can starve here. But here I won’t be attacked,” one says.
‘How can we trust them?’
In these camps there is little faith in the word of the Myanmar government and its military. For many, even if guarantees were made for returnees’ safety and security, they insist they will refuse to leave Bangladesh.
Despite the precariousness of life in makeshift border camps, these places are, for some, the safest houses they have known.
The displaced Rohingya have issued an unofficial list of requirements for their possible voluntary repatriation. It is in wide circulation among Rohingya in the camps.
At its head is a demand for citizenship and official recognition of the Rohingya as an ethnic group within Myanmar, as other ethnic minorities are. It also insists on a return to their own lands – not the planned detention camps – and justice for the atrocities of 2017.
“Those conditions have to be met first, the citizenship, the safety, our land, before we can think about return,” says Mohammed Asad, in Kutupalong Camp.
The first point alone – citizenship – appears to be a deal breaker.
For generations the Myanmar government has refused to recognise Rohingya as legitimate inhabitants of its country, despite many Rohingya families, like Nagumia’s, being able to trace their connection back beyond the 20th-century creation of the country then known as Burma.
Along with being denied citizenship, Rohingya have been forbidden from leaving their villages, barred from higher education, certain jobs and denied healthcare. The attacks against Rohingya that sparked the latest exodus were described as “textbook ethnic cleansing” by the UN.
Even if citizenship were assured, many are sceptical it would offer Rohingya sufficient protection without an independent monitor, such as a UN mission, overseeing their return.
“If they give us citizenship it will be fake. I do not believe,” a younger refugee, Yousuf, says. “They will say to come back and then when we are there they can do anything to us, they can hit us, cut us, kill us. And nobody knows.”
Adding to the mistrust, those in camps in Bangladesh are acutely aware of conditions back inside Myanmar.
About 120,00 Rohingya – 60,000 of them children – remain stranded and “almost forgotten” in squalid camps in central Rakhine state, the UN’s children agency says, with aid agencies prevented from providing assistance.
Unicef spokeswoman Marixie Mercador said the camps were isolated, unhealthy and dangerous.
“The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench. Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement,” she said. “Children walk barefoot through the muck.”
Deaths are common, and Mercador said most Rohingya held an “acute level of fear” of going outside the camp.
‘We are right now at the border ready to receive’
Repatriations of Myanmar refugees from Bangladesh were supposed to begin on 22 January. A group of displaced Hindus (not Muslim Rohingya) was earmarked to be the first to return – but this has been delayed.
Bangladeshi officials have vowed no one will be forced back and repatriations won’t start “until a conducive environment is created for them”.
But Myanmar says it is ready now.
“We are right now at the border ready to receive, if the Bangladeshis bring them to our side,” said U Kyaw Tin, minister of international cooperation.
But the stalemate over a voluntary repatriation program for displaced Rohingya has highlighted, too, the absence of any other emerging solution.
Bangladesh has been resolute in refusing to consider local integration.
Displaced Rohingya have lived inside Bangladeshi territory for decades: previously, when the numbers of refugees in the borderlands camps was smaller, some had found ways to get identity cards or access schools or health care in Bangladesh.
But with far greater numbers in the camps – the most established camp Kutupalong swelled in weeks from about 100,000 to more than half a million – Bangladesh has cracked down on anyone from the camps independently finding ways out.
Even Bangladeshis marrying Rohingya – viewed by the Bangladeshi government as a backdoor route to citizenship – has been banned.
A third solution, resettlement in other countries, appears distant. The numbers (688,000 have fled since August, and more than 800,000 people are now displaced) are far beyond the scale of any country’s resettlement scheme.
But even offers of limited specified resettlement places for Rohingya – from traditional third-country resettlement countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Canada – have not been forthcoming as they were for displaced Syrians and Iraqis.
Before any solution will be brokered, though, there is a more imminent deadline: the rains will return to this part of Bangladesh. Storm season, bringing with it the risk of tropical cyclones, begins in March, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the precarious camps.
Nagumia worries not for his own future. He has lived a long life, he says. His worry is for the future he leaves to his 20 grandchildren.
“Where can my family belong? Where is the place for us?
“Here, we live for each day. Soon the rains come and life is much hard[er]. The mud, and everybody will be sick. But we have nowhere else to go. Don’t forget about us.”
- The Guardian travelled with the assistance of Unicef Australia – Rohingya appeal