The government of Bangladesh on Thursday cleared 3,450 Rohingya Muslim refugees to return to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, but not a single one of the 295 families approached by Bangladeshi and United Nations officials was willing to go. The Bangladeshis were left with a line of empty trucks and buses pointed at the Myanmar border.
According to Sky News, some Rohingya whose names were on the repatriation list actually hid from officials so they would not be returned. Both Bangladesh and the United Nations have given assurances that repatriation will be strictly voluntary.
Rohingya leaders stated they will not consider returning home unless the government of Myanmar meets a set of security demands, chief among them an end to their awkward status as a stateless people. Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, and does not even see them as a distinct ethnic group.
The refugees also want safety guarantees, the return of property seized when they were subjected to a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and justice for the Myanmar troops and leaders who mistreated them.
“We need a real guarantee of citizenship, security and promise of original homelands. So we must talk with the Myanmar government about this before repatriation,” Rohingya leader Muhammad Islam told Al Jazeera on Thursday.
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that not a single family they interviewed was willing to consider repatriation. A similar repatriation effort in November was equally unsuccessful.
Even if they had accepted, the 3,450 Rohingya invited to return would have been a tiny fraction of the roughly 740,000 refugees currently packed into the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, a ghastly city of ramshackle shelters stretching to the horizon where human trafficking is one of the major industries.
Myanmar officially denies there was any genocidal campaign waged against the Rohingya, instead portraying the military action against them as a justifiable response to attacks from insurgents. Some members of the Myanmar government insist that not a single Rohingya was unfairly abused or killed by their forces. Others claim the Rohingya burned down their own villages and essentially faked their own genocide in a bid for international sympathy.
The United Nations disagrees, having released a report on Thursday after two years of research that concluded widespread sexual violence against Rohingya women proved the campaign against their people had genocidal intent. The U.N. invoked the Genocide Convention and castigated Myanmar for refusing to prosecute those responsible.
Myanmar officials stationed on their side of the border to receive the Rohingya who didn’t come refused to answer when reporters asked if the safety of repatriated refugees would be guaranteed. Those officials preside over a “repatriation center” filled with resources for processing returnees, but only a few dozen Rohingya have ever used the facility.
According to Myanmar, the reason so few Rohingya are willing to return home is that Muslim extremists and opportunistic Muslim charities working in the refugee camp have frightened them into staying put. The government feigns surprise that they left in the first place and cannot understand why they refuse to return to the villages that no longer exist, having been burned to the ground and flattened by bulldozers during the purge, to be replaced by a suspiciously large number of Myanmar military bases and Buddhist temples.
The New York Times on Thursday noted Bangladeshi officials are equally eager to pretend a tidal wave of returnees will pour into the Myanmar repatriation center any day now, because their own citizens are very unhappy with the notion of the Rohingya becoming permanent residents of Bangladesh or consuming its public resources. Bangladeshi officials worry about terrorist recruiters haunting the camps and preying on the sense of hopelessness and isolation prevalent among residents.
Facebook on Thursday announced it has shut down 216 social media accounts from Myanmar, many of them linked to the military, that were spreading propaganda against the Rohingya. It was the fourth time this year Facebook has purged suspicious accounts with ties to the military, and sometimes accounts openly used by Myanmar military officers named as human rights abusers by the United Nations.