Disease, hunger and misery stalk the Rohingya living in Bangladesh’s refugee camps but despite the grinding hardship, few are willing to consider the alternative — returning home under a deal struck with Myanmar.
The arrangement signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in November to start repatriating refugees within two months is viewed with deep suspicion and dread by Rohingya still traumatised by the violent expulsion from their homeland.
“They make deals, but they won’t follow them,” said Rohingya refugee Mohammad Syed, who estimated his age at 33.
“When we go back, they will torture and kill us again.”
Their fear is not misplaced.
Doctors Without Borders said Thursday that at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of a Myanmar army crackdown on rebels in Rakhine state that began in August.
The worst bouts of violence have subsided but Rohingya continue to flee, the UN says.
Nearly 650,000 of the Muslim minority have fled across the border into Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh since the army campaign began.
The UN rights chief said in December the catalogue of abuses — including indiscriminate killings, mass rape and the razing of hundreds of Rohingya villages — contained “elements of genocide”.
Myanmar has consistently denied committing atrocities in Rakhine, saying the crackdown was a proportionate response to the Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25, killing around a dozen officials.
But rights groups say the conditions are not in place to ensure safe, voluntary and dignified returns, and Rohingya sense danger lurking behind Myanmar’s assurances.
“It’s a trap. They have given such assurances before, and still made our lives hell,” said Rohingya woman Dolu, who goes by one name, in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“I would rather live here. We get food and shelter here, and we can pray freely. We are allowed to live.”
– Fear of return –
The Rohingya have reason to be wary.
The persecuted minority has been the target of past pogroms in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which does not recognise the group as a genuine ethnicity and has stripped them of citizenship.
Many have no homes left after their villages were torched.
Those still living in Rakhine, Myanmar’s poorest state, face heavy restrictions on work, travel and access to basic services.
More than 100,000 Rohingya displaced by a 2012 outbreak of violence have been trapped in squalid camps in central Rakhine ever since.
Aid groups have warned Myanmar they would boycott any new camps for Rohingya returnees, saying refugees must be allowed to settle in their own homes and not forced into ghetto-like conditions.
“They have to recognise us as citizens of the country. They have to give us proper Rohingya identity cards. Only then we will go back,” said 25-year-old Rohingya man Aziz Khan at Kutupalong, a gigantic camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“Otherwise we would rather die here in Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh has been praised for opening its borders as waves of Rohingya civilians fled army reprisals and Buddhist mobs.
But the government has always maintained that the refugees would one day return, tussling for months with Myanmar over the terms of repatriation deal.
Before the latest surge, Bangladesh was already hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled previous waves of persecution.
This crisis has put enormous pressure on ordinary Bangladeshis living in Cox’s Bazar, where the refugee population has grown four-fold since August.
“It is good news, goodbye to them. It is time they go back to where they belong,” said Ehsaan Hossain, a shopkeeper at Cox’s Bazar where prices for basic goods has skyrocketed.
Others complained about the headache of frequent identity checks and roadside patrols since the Rohingya influx began.
But rickshaw driver Mohammad Ali worried his income — which had doubled since the flood of refugees — would slump if the Rohingya suddenly left en masse.
“In a way, I will miss them if they leave,” the 30-year-old said.