At the refugee camps in the district of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, the Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar are now living in fear of repatriation. On 23 November last year, the two countries had signed an agreement to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees that are currently residing in Bangladesh. Two months later, the countries agreed on a “physical arrangement” to facilitate the repatriation process, which was scheduled to be completed within two years. Bangladesh subsequently postponed the process indefinitely—Abul Kalam, the host country’s commissioner of refugee relief and rehabilitation in Cox’s Bazar, told me there was a lot of “preparatory work” remaining, including finalising the list of refugees to be sent back.
There is little certainty about when the repatriation process will begin, but the Rohingyas are fearful of what awaits them in Myanmar. A 22-year-old refugee told me that Myanmarese soldiers had murdered her family in front of her and then raped her. “I am afraid of repatriation,” she said, requesting that I withhold her name. “I survived once, this time they will kill all of us.” The fear of forced repatriation is reinforced by the apparent resentment brewing among the local Bangladeshis against the Rohingya community. Mizanur Rahman Milky, the joint secretary of the Tour Operator Owners Association of Cox’s Bazar, or TOAC—a collective of tourism agencies in the district—told me he believed that there were no longer any threats to the Rohingyas’ security in Myanmar. “Now the locals are saying enough is enough—it is the time Rohingya should go back to their country.”
Targeted attacks against the Rohingya Muslim community, which began in late August last year, resulted in the mass exodus of the community fromthe western province of Rakhine in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, into neighbouring Bangladesh. In December 2017, the Human Rights Watch published a report noting that the Myanmarese army had torched over 350 Rohingya villages, and Doctors Without Borders reported that at least 6,700 Rohingyas had been murdered in the violence. United Nations officials, in separate instances, have stated that Myanmar military’s operation “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” and that it had the “hallmarks of a genocide.” The violent persecution of the community has forced around 700,000 Rohingyas to flee their homes into neighbouring Bangladesh.
The November agreement excluded the UN officials from participating in the proposed repatriation process, which led to protests from the Rohingya refugees, who argued that the violence against the community had not ended. In March this year, Andrew Gilmour, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for human rights, noted: “The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied blood-letting and mass rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation.” On 29 March, the Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs stated that the UN had confirmed that Myanmar had engaged the UNHCR for the repatriation process.
“Bullets were falling like rain,” the 22-year-old refugee said, recalling the situation when she fled her hometown, in the village of Tula Tuli in the Rakhine province, on 30 August last year. I met her in January 2018, at a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, situated around 40 kilometres from the Cox’s Bazar town. Though it had been five months since the attack, her jaw still appeared wounded—she told me she had been eating only khichri since she fled her home because she was unable to chew solid food. On the day of the attack, the 22-year-old recalled, she saw around 500 people storming Tula Tuli and indiscriminately attacking the Rohingya villagers with guns and machetes. She said that these included members of the Tatmadaw—the official name for the Myanmarese armed forces—personnel from the border security unit of the country’s police force called the Border Guard Police, and local Rakhine villagers. “I rushed out of the house carrying my daughter and began to run aimlessly, but the soldiers trapped hundreds of us on the large bank of the river, which surrounds the village on three sides.” She added that the Tatmadaw soldiers then separated the men from the women and “shot the men one after another.”