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Rohingya flee refugee camps, as Myanmar prepares for first returnees

  • Published at 10:48 am November 12th, 2018
Rohingya exodus
File photo: Rohingya refugees are reflected in rain water along an embankment next to paddy fields after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017Reuters

However, the United Nations says conditions are not yet safe for their return


Dozens of Rohingya families on a list of refugees set to be repatriated to Myanmar later this week have fled from camps in Bangladesh where they were living, a Rohingya leader said on Monday, even as Myanmar prepares to begin receiving them.

"Most of the people on the list have fled to avoid being repatriated," said Abdus Salam, a Rohingya leader at the Jamtoli camp, some 40km southeast of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, adding most have fled to other neighbouring camps to avoid being detected and forced to return against their will.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in late October to begin repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to escape an army crackdown, even though the United Nations' refugee agency and aid groups say doubts persist about their safety and conditions in Myanmar should they return.

The repatriation of the first batch of 2,000 refugees is set to officially begin on November 15 and officials in Myanmar said on Sunday they were ready to begin receiving refugees this week.

"It depends on the other country, whether this will actually happen or not," Win Myat Aye, Myanmar's Minister for Social Welfare and Resettlement, told a news conference, referring to Bangladesh. "But we must be ready from our side. We have done that."

Last week, more than 20 individuals on the list of potential returnees submitted by Bangladesh told Reuters they would refuse to return to Myanmar's western Rakhine state, from where they fled, saying that they were terrified.

Bangladesh has said it would not force anyone to return and has asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to verify whether those shortlisted are willing to go back.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a UNHCR representative in Bangladesh, told Reuters on Sunday that this effort had not yet begun.

Avoiding prayers

"People are so afraid of being identified, they are avoiding Friday prayers at the mosque," said one refugee, who has fled with his family from Jamtoli to the large Kutupalong camp to evade repatriation.

The United Nations has said conditions are not yet safe for the refugees to go back, in part because Myanmar Buddhists have been protesting against the return of Rohingya.

The UNHCR said late on Sunday that refugees should be allowed to go and see the conditions in Myanmar before they decide whether to return.

Abul Kalam, Bangladesh Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, said he was hopeful the process could begin on Thursday.

"The return will be voluntary. Nobody will be forced to go back," he told Reuters.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the sweeping army crackdown in Myanmar last year. They say soldiers and local Buddhists massacred families, burned hundreds of villages, and carried out gang rapes. UN-mandated investigators have accused the army of "genocidal intent" and ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar denies almost all of the allegations, saying security forces were battling terrorists. Attacks by Rohingya insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army preceded the crackdown.