In the Hakimpara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are denouncing a new repatriation deal that aims to return hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar over the next two years. Their primary objection to the plan, which is supposed to start sending refugees back this week, is that it doesn’t grant them safety or citizenship in Myanmar.
“Without justice we will never go back,” says 30-year-old Shafika Khatun. “We need our rights and our citizenship in Myanmar.”
Khatun is one of the more than 650,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since the military launched what it calls cleanup operations against “terrorists” five months ago.
Myanmar doesn’t consider the Rohingya to be citizens even though members of this Muslim group have lived in the country for generations. The Muslim minority are treated as illegal immigrants and have faced waves of violence and harassment by government forces, pro-government mobs and Buddhist extremists. Last fall, the United Nations denounced the attacks as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
“Now if we go back they’ll kill us,” Khatun says.
Khatun lives in the so-called “widows’ village” section in the Hakimpara camp — a cluster of 34 shelters covered with orange tarps. There are no men. Most of the women’s husbands were killed in the recent violence. Khatun says her husband and son were arrested by the Myanmar military more than a year ago; she believes they are being held in prison.
Khatun and the hundreds of thousands of other refugees have overwhelmed the vast stretch of Bangladesh where they now live. The hills where they’ve set up shelters are stripped of almost all their vegetation. Most of the trees have been cut down for firewood. Bangladesh officials have banned the refugees from taking formal jobs because of fears that they would flood the local labor market and drive down wages. This means the refugees are almost entirely dependent on international food aid to survive.
These refugee camps in Bangladesh are now the largest in the world, more than twice the size of the previous record holder, the Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda, home to some 270,000 South Sudanese.
Mohamed Yonus, who was a rice farmer in Myanmar, says he doesn’t expect to leave the Hakimpara camp any time soon.
“If the Bangladesh soldiers force us to go we will go,” Yonus says. “But without our rights [in Myanmar] they’ll kill us over there.”
Bangladesh is making it clear that it wants to find a solution to this massive refugee problem sooner rather than later. Bangladeshi officials, however, have also stressed that repatriation will be voluntary and no one will get sent back against his or her will. And that may make reaching their target of returning all the Rohingya to Myanmar over the next two years nearly impossible.