In Depth

Rohingyas set to return to Myanmar: but will they be safe?

Planned repatriation in doubt as refugees in Bangladesh go into hiding

Bangladesh has promised that it will not forcibly repatriate any Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, amid fears over the safety of the persecuted minority.

“No one will be forced back to Myanmar,” Bangladesh’s Rohingya relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, told Al Jazeera.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have faced persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s security forces. Last year, the United Nations said attacks on Rohingya in the majority-Buddhist state were a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

In total, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh in search of safety, according to UN estimates.

Earlier this week, the Bangladesh government announced that an initial group of 2,260 Rohingya from 485 families were to be sent back to Myanmar, in line with a bilateral plan agreed by the two governments in October.

Most of the refugees are living in basic conditions in camps near the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar.

The BBC reports that “on hearing the announcement, the people in the camps erupted in protest, shouting, ‘We don’t want to go back’, and holding up placards listing the things they wanted before they would agree to return”.

Although the plan was to begin repatriating the Rohingya refugees in groups of 150 each day, “by Wednesday night almost all had gone into hiding in other camps and in the nearby forest, amid fears they would be sent to Myanmar against their will”, says The Guardian.

Repatriation chief Kalam has acknowledged that most of the Rohingya are afraid to return across the border, but insisted: “At least some Rohingya, we believe, are willing to go back to Myanmar now. We are trying to reach them in different camps. We are ready to help them return to Myanmar.”

However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that the situation in the Southeast Asian country was “not yet conducive for voluntary return”, and vowed to play no role in the repatriation.

Officials in Dhaka are “worried about the prospect of the sprawling camps at Cox’s Bazar near the Myanmar border becoming permanent settlements”, reports the Financial Times.

Meanwhile, “the regional hegemon”, China, “opposes seeing the conflict internationalised - including the push to prosecute military and police officials responsible for the violence - and is backing the two countries’ repatriation plan”, says the newspaper.

For now, though, Bangladesh is attempting to quell fears of enforced repatriation by instructing NGOs that it maintains its commitment to voluntary returns and that all NGOs should continue their work as usual.

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