Among Rohingya, refugee squalor can seem better than home

Among Rohingya, refugee squalor can seem better than home
Mon Jan 22, 2018 11:57:55

Both Bangladesh and Myanmar insist the upcoming repatriations of Rohingya Muslims will go smoothly, with thousands of refugees who fled their homes in terror just a few months ago crossing the border back into Myanmar and returning safely to their villages.

ASSOCIATED PRESS--  Eventually, more than 650,000 Rohingya are supposed to leave Bangladesh in a process that guarantees them "safety, security and dignity," according to an agreement both countries signed late last year.

But with the first repatriations scheduled for as early as Tuesday, and more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, international aid workers, local officials and the refugees themselves say preparations have barely begun. Many refugees say they would rather contend with the squalor of the camps rather than the dangers they could face if they return home.

"If they send us back forcefully we will not go," said Sayed Noor, who fled his village in Myanmar last August, amid a torrent of Rohingya heading for safety. He says Myanmar authorities "have to give us our rights and give us justice."

"They will have to return all our wealth that they have looted and hold people accountable. They will have to compensate us. We came here because we are fighting for those things," he said. "If we don't get all of this, then what was the point of coming here?"

David Mathieson, a longtime human rights researcher who has spent years working on Rohingya issues, heaped scorn on the agreement.

"It's a fantasyland, make-believe world that both governments are in," he said in an interview in Yangon, Myanmar's main city, noting that security forces there had just forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border. "Now you're expecting them to come back, as if they're in a conga line of joy after what you did to them?"

The Rohingya Muslims have long been treated as outsiders in largely-Buddhist Myanmar, derided as "Bengalis," illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendered stateless. They are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.

Many of the people who fled earlier violence and moved into displacement camps inside Myanmar have been unable to leave those settlements for years.

Most Rohingya live in poverty in Myanmar's Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh border. Marked by their religion and their language - most Rohingya speak a dialect of Bengali, while most of their neighbors speak Rakhine - they are easy to target.


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