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Repatriation camps built for Rohingya refugees are surrounded by barbed-wire in Rakhine State, Myanmar, January 2018.  © 2018 Thein Zaw/AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Bangladesh and Myanmar are organizing returns of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine State without consulting the community or addressing the grave risks to their lives and liberty, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 5, 2023, Bangladesh officials, in coordination with Myanmar junta authorities, took 20 Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State to visit resettlement camps as part of renewed efforts to repatriate about 1,100 Rohingya in a pilot project. Donor governments and United Nations experts should call for a halt to any Rohingya repatriation until conditions are in place for safe and sustainable returns.

“Bangladesh authorities shouldn’t forget the reasons why Rohingya became refugees in the first place, and recognize that none of those factors have changed,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh is frustrated with its burden as host, but sending refugees back to the control of a ruthless Myanmar junta will just be setting the stage for the next devastating exodus.”

About 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, confined to squalid camps and villages that leave them exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events such as Cyclone Mocha, compounded by the junta’s severe restrictions on humanitarian aid.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five Rohingya refugees who were part of the go-and-see visit. They said that the detention-like conditions and lack of full citizenship rights were not conducive to a safe return. “We aren’t at all satisfied seeing the Rakhine situation,” a Rohingya refugee said. “It’s another trap by Myanmar to take us back and then continue the abuses like they have been doing to us for decades.”

Rohingya refugees have consistently said they want to go home, but only when their security, access to land and livelihoods, freedom of movement, and citizenship rights can be ensured.

The Rohingya delegation visited the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp and Kyein Chaung resettlement camp in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township. The camps were built by Myanmar authorities on Rohingya land that Myanmar security forces burned and bulldozed in 2017 and 2018. The transit camp is surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fencing and security outposts, similar to the confinement in the Rohingya detention camps in Sittwe and other townships in central Rakhine State.

“I could see my village,” a Rohingya refugee said of the visit. “The Hla Poe Kaung transit camp land used to be my home. My house was destroyed, my school is now a health center. Three whole Rohingya villages used to be where the transit camp is now. Myanmar authorities are trying to confine us in camps like in Sittwe.”

Myanmar authorities have held about 140,000 Rohingya arbitrarily and indefinitely in camps for more than 10 years. Recent measures to ostensibly close the camps appear designed to make the Rohingya’s segregation and confinement permanent. The camps, which have been in constant disrepair due to Myanmar authorities’ restrictions, were severely damaged by Cyclone Mocha on May 14.

“We asked the Myanmar authorities why our villages were turned into displacement camps,” one Rohingya refugee said. “They said they didn’t have any other options. They didn’t answer our questions about whether we would ever be given back our land. If these camps are temporary, then why haven’t the Rohingya living in the central Rakhine camps been able to return to their original villages?”

Conditions in Rakhine State have not been conducive to voluntary, safe, or dignified returns of Rohingya refugees since 2017, when more than 730,000 Rohingya fled the Myanmar military’s crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. The prospect of safe returns has decreased since the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, carried out by the same generals who orchestrated the 2017 mass atrocities.

Myanmar junta officials provided the visiting Rohingya with booklets titled, “Facts on the Arrangement of the Myanmar Government for Reception and Resettlement of Displaced Persons on their Return under the Pilot Project,” dated April 2023. The booklet, written in Burmese, English, and Bangla, states that returnees will be housed at the Hla Poe Kaung transit camp for up to two months, then relocated to one of two resettlement camps with prefabricated houses or a land plot in one of 15 “designated villages,” where they can build a home through a cash-for-work program.

The booklet states that security personnel will be deployed “to ensure the rule of law and security in the areas where the returnees reside or pass through.” Myanmar authorities have long invoked “security concerns” as the rationale for violating the rights of Rohingya to travel outside of their camps and villages in Rakhine State.

The junta claims in the booklet that the UN Development Programme, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be involved in the pilot project. The UNHCR said in a recent statement that “visits are an important part of voluntary refugee returns, providing a chance for people to observe conditions in their home country first-hand ahead of return and contributing to the making of an informed decision on return.” However, the agency reported in March that it is not involved in the pilot repatriation discussions and that “conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are currently not conducive to the sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.”

The junta’s systematic abuses against the Rohingya amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid, persecution, and deprivation of liberty. Since the 2021 coup, security forces have arrested thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children for “unauthorized travel.” The junta has imposed new movement restrictions and aid blockages on Rohingya camps and villages, increasing water scarcity and food shortages.

A major concern among Rohingya on the trip was the booklet’s reference to National Verification Cards (NVCs), documentation that does not grant Myanmar citizenship. Rohingya have widely rejected the NVC process, seeing it as marking them as foreigners in their own country. NVC-holders have not been granted meaningful freedom of movement, while threats and coercion to force Rohingya to accept the card have been hallmarks of the process.

“Why do we have to apply for NVCs when we’re born there and have proof of being from Myanmar,” a Rohingya refugee on the visit said. “Rohingya who have NVCs are still not granted freedoms like the other ethnicities. They are linking every right like freedom of movement, access to livelihoods, education, health care, with accepting the NVC. But that would make us aliens in our own land. They should grant us full citizenship and accept us as Rohingya.”

Rohingya are effectively denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, leaving them stateless.

In March, a delegation of Myanmar junta officials visited the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh, which house about one million Rohingya refugees, to interview Rohingya for “verification” for the “pilot repatriation” process. Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that they were deceived or coerced by Bangladesh administrators into meeting with the delegation. Another visit by junta officials reportedly scheduled for mid-May was postponed due to Cyclone Mocha.

In April, China held tripartite talks in Kunming with Bangladesh government and Myanmar junta officials on restarting repatriation ahead of the monsoon season.

Some refugees said Bangladesh authorities coerced them to join the go-and-see visit and told them to speak positively to the media about the conditions in Rakhine State. Bangladesh intelligence officers have harassed at least two refugees who publicly criticized the Maungdaw camps. Security forces have increased surveillance of Rohingya on the pilot repatriation list, with officers informing them to prepare for returns.

Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews that they plan to start repatriations in May, but will not force any refugees to return.

Junta officials have also been visiting Rakhine State in preparation for their submission to the International Court of Justice in the Genocide Convention case brought by Gambia, initially due April 24. In March, the junta requested a 10-month extension, claiming, among other reasons, that it “needed more time in order to take statements from witnesses who were presently living in camps in Bangladesh or would soon be repatriated to Myanmar.” The court extended the deadline only one month, to May 24. The timing of the pilot repatriation project appears to be part of the junta’s broader efforts to feign progress in its treatment of the Rohingya to the court, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2017, the Bangladesh government has respected the international principle of nonrefoulement, the right of refugees not to be returned to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened. But Bangladesh authorities have also been intensifying restrictions on livelihoods, movement, and education, creating a coercive environment designed to force people to consider premature returns.

“Bangladesh should continue to uphold its policy of not forcing Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar under current conditions,” Bauchner said. “Donor governments should help ease this difficult situation by supporting Bangladesh to create opportunities for Rohingya to learn and work so that they’re better prepared to go home when that day comes.”

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