Rohingya refugees walk inside Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
“How can we go back?” Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee in a Bangladesh camp called to tell me. “They will kill us if we go back.”

There is panic in the refugee camps, he said, after Myanmar and Bangladesh announced plans to start refugee repatriations very soon. While the Bangladeshi government accepted approximately 700,000 Rohingya refugees after the Myanmar army’s ethnic cleansing campaign, Rohingya say authorities are now pressuring them to return.

Around 30 families are supposed to leave shortly. Security forces have been deployed in the refugee camps even as Bangladeshi officials said that there won’t be any forced returns.

Myanmar authorities say they have verified the identities of 4,000 Rohingya to be returned, but no one quite knows who is on that list. Some, fearing that they are included, have fled from the camps. Others threaten or attempt suicide.

Despite numerous well-documented claims of mass killings, rape, arson, and other crimes that forced hundreds of thousands to flee northern Rakhine state for Bangladesh, the Myanmar authorities remain in denial, refusing to hold to account the troops responsible. Myanmar is blaming the messenger, so two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are in prison for investigating and exposing military atrocities.

The UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned that “returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar at this point effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades.”

Bangladesh’s friends and donors should call on leaders in Dhaka to halt all attempts to return Rohingya refugees. Refugees have the right to return home if they wish, but all returns must be fully voluntary and safe with full respect for their human rights, including their right to security as well as international monitoring to protect them from further persecution.

Mohammad explained the stakes. “They say we are foreign settlers. My grandfather had a citizenship card. My mother. My father. My older brother. But they say I am not a citizen. This is forced. This is involuntary. Not one person in the camp wants to go back.”