Rohingya refugees arrive at night from Myanmar to Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 27, 2017.

© 2017 Damir Sagolj/Reuters

(New York) – The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments should immediately suspend the proposed repatriation of Rohingya refugees set for mid-November, Human Rights Watch said today. The expedited plan, announced on October 30, 2018, would return refugees to dire conditions in Myanmar where their lives and liberty are at risk.

“Myanmar’s government keeps talking about returns, but it has done nothing to allay the Rohingya’s fears of being returned to the same violence and oppression they fled,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director. “If Bangladesh moves forward on repatriations without the UN, it will squander the international goodwill it has accrued over the past year as a host to Rohingya refugees.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar officials met in Dhaka on October 30 and 31, the third meeting of a joint working group to carry out a bilateral repatriation agreement signed in November 2017. Following the meeting, representatives announced they had developed a “very concrete plan” to begin repatriations in mid-November, with the first round to include 2,260 Rohingya from 485 families. According to Myanmar officials, starting on November 15, 150 refugees would be received each week at the Nga Khu Ya reception center before being transferred to the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp. The government of Bangladesh appears anxious to begin repatriations in advance of upcoming national elections.

The 2,000 Rohingya identified to take part in the initial returns were selected from a list of 8,032 refugees that Bangladesh presented to Myanmar in February, about 4,600 of whom Myanmar has said it verified. Bangladesh culled the names at random from its registration rolls, without consulting the refugees to confirm their willingness to return or to have their names and other details shared with Myanmar officials. “The names on the list we prepared were not chosen because they particularly wanted to go back,” Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, told Human Rights Watch. Bangladesh officials said they provided Myanmar with a second list for verification of more than 22,000 refugee names and addresses.

In June, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and UN Development Programme signed a memorandum of understanding with Myanmar to facilitate returns. They have since begun limited assessments in Rakhine State. Yet Bangladesh and Myanmar officials did not consult with UNHCR or Rohingya refugees on the list of names being presented for repatriation before making their announcement. The UN has opposed the proposal as “rushed and premature.”

A UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, told Voice of America: “Because we consider that conditions in Rakhine state are not yet conducive for voluntary return in the conditions of safety, dignity and sustainability, UNHCR will not, at this stage, facilitate any refugee returns to Rakhine state.” The refugee agency reported this week that it “was not involved in preparation, transmission or receipt of this list nor in the verification and clearing that was reportedly carried out by the government of Myanmar.” Bangladesh should provide Rohingya refugees with legal refugee status and documents and give UNHCR the lead role in coordinating the humanitarian response and any voluntary repatriation operations.

More than 730,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh over the past year to escape the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They joined about 200,000 refugees who had fled previous waves of violence and persecution. A UN fact-finding mission found “sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw [armed forces] on charges of genocide.”

The Myanmar government has claimed since January that it is ready to accept repatriated refugees, yet has done nothing to create conditions for safe and dignified returns or address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

Recent Rohingya arrivals in Bangladesh have reported killings, burnings, enforced disappearances, extortion, and severe restrictions on movement. Myanmar authorities have detained and tortured Rohingya who returned from Bangladesh in the past year. As Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission, told the UN Security Council at an October briefing on the Rohingya: “Returning them in this context is tantamount to condemning them to life as sub-humans and further mass killing.”

In central Rakhine State, more than 124,000 Rohingya have been confined to open-air detention camps for six years, since being displaced by violence in 2012. They are arbitrarily deprived of liberty, forced to live in conditions described as “beyond the dignity of any people” by the UN deputy relief chief after an April visit. The “reception centers” and “transit camp” Myanmar built this year to process and house returnees are surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fences and security outposts, similar to the physical confinement structures in the central Rakhine camps. The Hla Poe Kaung reception center was built on land where Rohingya had been living, before security forces burned and the government bulldozed the area.

Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is bound under customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to a place where they would face persecution, torture, ill-treatment, or death. At the Security Council in October, Bangladesh’s representative to the UN said that before Rohingya could return, Myanmar’s government needed to abolish discriminatory laws, policies, and practices; address the root causes of their flight; guarantee protection, rights, and pathways to citizenship for all; and bring accountability and justice to prevent atrocity crimes. This was the “minimum requirement for creating a situation that could be considered favorable to the Rohingya’s sustainable return to Myanmar.”

The repatriation plan was developed without consultation and consent from Rohingya refugees, in contravention of international standards. To have a genuinely free, fully informed choice, refugees should be consulted and provided with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information about conditions in areas of return, including security conditions, assistance, and protection to reintegrate.

Many of the hundreds of Rohingya refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they want to go home, but only if their security, access to land and livelihoods, freedom of movement, citizenship rights, and self-identification could be ensured. A Rohingya group gave a letter to the Myanmar-Bangladesh delegation that visited the camps on October 31, outlining their conditions for return regarding citizenship, security, and justice. The letter states: “We demand to see evidence of your political commitment to treat us as equal citizens and human beings. We hereby inform you that we will not agree to be repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar until we see evidence of our above demands being fulfilled.”

“This repatriation plan is just Myanmar’s latest attempt to deflect international criticism from its brutal ethnic cleansing campaign for which no one has been brought to justice,” Frelick said. “Donors should be clear that they will not fund this dangerous plan, which threatens Rohingya refugees’ rights to dignity, security, and liberty.”