Myanmar says it has repatriated the first family of Rohingya of around 700,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh since August 2017, despite UN warnings that returning was not safe.
The Muslim community has sheltered in huge camps in Bangladesh since the Burmese army launched a ruthless crackdown in northern Rakhine State last August. Myanmar’s military-dominated authorities said troops were targeted Rohingya militants, although they refer to “Bengalis”, implying the community is comprised of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Earlier this month, Myanmar sentenced seven soldiers to prison terms for involvement in the killing of 10 Rohingya men.
Refugees in Bangladesh, however, said that such acts were widespread, describing indiscriminate killings, rape and the burning of villages.
For decades, the Rohingya have been systematically stripped of their citizenship and forced to live in apartheid-like conditions with severely restricted access to health care, education and other basic services.
Bangladesh and Myanmar were due to begin repatriations in January but the plan has been repeatedly delayed with both governments blaming the other for a lack of preparation.
According to the Nay Pyi Taw government, a single Muslim family returned.
“The five members of a family… came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine State this morning,” the shadowy “Information Committee” posted on Facebook. The family was reportedly given national verification cards, which fall short of citizenship and have been rejected by Rohingya leaders who want full rights.
Government photos showed what it called a “Muslim” family receiving the verification cards, as the state does not use the word Rohingya or even “minority”, because it implies citizenship.
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, Mohammad Abul Kalam, said the family had been sheltering in a camp erected on “no man’s land” between the two countries.
Several thousand Rohingya have been stuck between the borders since August. There are reportedly a cluster of tents beyond a fence which marks the border.
“They were not under our jurisdiction, therefore, we cannot confirm whether there would be more people waiting to go back,” the commissioner told the media.
Andrea Giorgetta from the International Federation for Human Rights said the event was “a public relations exercise in an attempt to deflect attention from the need for accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine State”.
“Before proceeding with the repatriation of Rohingya, the Myanmar government must recognise and guarantee all their fundamental human rights,” he said.
Rohingya refugees arrive in Bangladesh last September. Picture credit: Flickr