Bangladesh postpones plan to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar

The repatriation deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh has been delayed, raising questions about what the safety of those Rohingya that do eventually go back.

Repatriation was set to begin on Tuesday, wrap up within 2 years

A Rohingya refugee girl sits next to her mother who rests after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 6, 2017. (Reuters)
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The Bangladesh government is postponing its plan to send 688,000 Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.

The repatriation was set to begin on Tuesday and wrap up within two years. But the Bangladesh government said Monday that the process of verifying the list of those returning was still a work in progress, and that it needed more time.

There have also been concerns that the repatriation, which is supposed to be voluntary, would lead to people being forced back against their will. The Bangladesh government has insisted the program would be voluntary.

No new date has been set for when the repatriation will begin.

Rohingya refugees line up for a food supply distribution at the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 12, 2017. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Rohingya people and international organizations have been expressing concerns since the deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar was signed in November. They said it does not include proper international monitoring or enough clarity on what the Rohingya people would return to in Myanmar.

Anwar Arkani, founder of the Rohingya Association of Canada, has three siblings living in the camps. He interviewed them and other refugees after the deal was signed.

"Everybody said, 'why don't they kill us here?'," says Arkani. 

"'Why are they just playing with us, with our lives? If we are sent back where we came from, where people are still fleeing, it is as if they are sending us to be brutally killed'."

'They do want to go home'

CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed visited the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh last September. She calls the situation there "bleak."

"We're talking about an environment that's essentially exceptional hardship," Ayed tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Rohingya refugees fill their containers with water at the Onchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 13, 2017. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Ayed describes the refugee camps as enormous, with residents at risk of disease because of the unsanitary conditions and the weather, and entirely reliant on aid for their survival. The population mostly consists of women and children, whose educational and health needs are not being met.

In many cases, the homes and villages of the Rohingya in Myanmar have been destroyed, leaving it unclear what they would be returning to — and whether they would be safe.

However, many of the Rohingya refugees Ayed spoke to do not want to stay in the camps.

The idea that this could happen right now under the current context was absolutely outrageous.- Samantha  Nutt , executive director of War Child Canada

"Despite the violence they'd been through, despite all that happened, they do want to go home," says Ayed. "They feel that Myanmar is their home, generations they have been there, despite claims to the contrary [from the Myanmar government]."

Samantha Nutt has worked with refugees all over the world as the founder and executive director of War Child Canada. She criticizes the deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

"The idea that this could happen right now under the current context was absolutely outrageous," Nutt says. "It would have exposed thousands of already vulnerable people to potentially grave abuse and neglect and hardship and possibly death."

'They're stateless'

Myanmar's government had said that as part of the deal, it would set up camps for tens of thousands of voluntarily returning refugees.

"In many cases, they weren't even being invited to return to their ancestral homes," says Nutt.

A Rohingya refugee girl walks next to a pond in the early morning at Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 10, 2018. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

"They were being invited to return to an environment where they would be contained, controlled, heavily monitored, and where they would exist at the mercy of the Burmese government which, as we know, they've been under attack as a result of that regime for many decades."

Nutt calls it an "impossible task."

"They're stateless. They're not recognized as citizens by the Burmese government."

She says the situation of Rohingya refugees would be improved by large amounts of aid money flowing in from around the world. But she says other situations have proved the better the conditions for refugees in the camps, the more likely they are to stay there in the long term.

"That puts a lot of pressure on the government within Bangladesh to continue providing services which are expensive and time consuming."

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page.