Can’t go back, won’t go back: The Rohingya people’s impossible dilemma

Can’t go back, won’t go back: The Rohingya people’s impossible dilemma

While the influx of people fleeing across the border from Myanmar has slowed, there is still no clear plan for what will happen to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh. For the stranded Rohingya, they either cannot go back, or will not go back.

All that separates the rolling green hills of Myanmar from ramshackle shelters is some reinforced barbed wire and wooden posts.

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: All that separates the rolling green hills of Myanmar from ramshackle shelters is some reinforced barbed wire and wooden posts.

For the 12,000 people currently perched on no man’s land, it is just enough for safety, but a tender reminder of what they have left behind: Violence, chaos and terror.

Dozens of children play in the small brown creek that acts as another divide - that between neutral turf and Bangladesh.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. Children playing
The majority of Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh are children. (Photo: Jack Board)

“We don’t want them coming in,” one of the border officers said.

For now, they are stuck here. In this district – Chittagong Hill Tracts – authorities are not allowing the Rohingya to enter the country. Those who have managed to get in have been rounded up and returned and police continue a vigilant observation of those now left stranded.

These refugees have likely made the shortest journeys of the 400,000-plus wave that has swept across the border since late August.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. Barbed wire at border
Barbed wire has apparently been reinforced along the border by Myanmar troops. (Photo: Jack Board)

Anwar Ullah says his land is just 2km from here. For now though that remains an unassailable distance.

Their homes have been destroyed and people were kept hostage by the military, he said. He claims his brother was shot in front of him. Going home remains a remote and unsafe prospect.

“We will go there where the other people go," he said. "We want to return to Myanmar, but we will only go there when peace prevails."

The Myanmar government has developed a working team for the "urgent repatriation" of Rohingya who fled across the border.

That process is expected to follow the protocols agreed upon between the two governments in 1993.

But under that same accord, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been left in limbo amid stuttering political negotiations that have resulted in very few repatriations in the past two decades.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. Abdus Salam.
Abdus Salam has been waiting to return to Myanmar since 1993. (Photo: Jack Board)

Abdus Salam is one of those aching to see his homeland again. But urgent is not a word he has ever associated with his lengthy plight in Bangladesh.

The 60-year-old and his family have been residents of Kutupalong Refugee Camp since 1992.  He holds his registration card and points to it in frustration. It has served him little use in his ultimate goal.

"I would return today if our country gives us the rights," he said. "We want a country. We want citizenship."

He has little hope for a quick resolution to the mass migration crisis having seen promises broken and political negotiations fail in the past.

“Some of us were taken back before with assurances that our demands would be met, but the demands were not met, rather, people were slaughtered. There has been no end to the incidents of arson and killings yet.”

While some long-term residents still hope, for the newer arrivals a return to the disorder and danger of Rakhine is an unwelcome prospect. They simply do not want to return without radical changes in the state.

Jafar Ullah said his brother was killed and his priority is seeking refuge in Bangladesh, not plotting a return to his home village.

“I saw my village turned into a barren land when I left it … there was no home left there,” he said.

“I have seen my brothers and sisters being tortured. Their hands were tied up behind. They put them inside the house and the house was set on fire with them inside.

“We were so happy when we entered Bangladesh because our lives could be saved.”

Jack Rohingya Refugee story Sep 25. Children
Many children are in need of urgent basic care. (Photo: Jack Board) 

Jack Rohingya refugee story. @ kids
Young children caring for infants is a common sight throughout the camps. (Photo: Jack Board)

Tales abound of a scorched earth policy being rolled out by the Myanmar military. Smoke can still be seen rising on the horizon – villages that are being burned to the ground.

The military has also been accused of planting landmines to halt the progress – or prevent the return – of the evacuees.

“Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

There are also media reports of more internment camps being planned in Rakhine for those Muslims unable or unwilling to leave their villages.

They are not the conditions these people are seeking to endure again.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. People walk through farms.
These Rohingyas are not allowed to enter Bangladesh and live sheltered in no man's land. (Photo: Jack Board)


In long sides they squat, slowly being herded closer to a precinct turned into a registration centre. At this time hundreds of men and just a few women are taking the next steps in consolidating status in their new reality.

In the eyes of Bangladeshi law, they are becoming Undocumented Myanmar Nationals (UMN). They have experience being undocumented, and there is some irony for them that they have had to travel so far to be recognised as people of Myanmar.

Each individual is quizzed about their personal details including their address, which appears to be being copy pasted en masse for different individuals.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. Biometrics
A man gives his biometric information to receive a UMN identification card. (Photo: Jack Board)

Biometrics and photos are taken and within minutes a laminated identification card is presented to each of the waiting applicants.

“So far we have registered almost 11,000 plus, and this number is increasing because more work stations are coming,” said Lt Col Md Mahbubur Rahman Khan, the deputy project director.

“If someone does not possess this, he or she does not get benefit from the government. With that they will be provided with food, clothing, medical aid and so on.”

Several Rohingya in the camp told Channel NewsAsia that they were unaware of the registration process and that it was not a priority as they sought to build shelters and find food after a painful journey.

There are currently only two processing centres but more are being prepared.

Registering with Bangladesh is one matter, but meeting Myanmar’s tough conditions for re-entry will likely prove impossible for most.

Proof of citizenship, the first requirement, is a status Rohingya had denied to them from 1982 by law. National Registration Certificates were cancelled and White Cards ordered to be surrendered in the lead-up to the 2015 election.

Jack Rohingya refugee story Sep 25. Undocumented people
Nearly all of the refugees have no document proof of their lives in Myanmar. (Photo: Jack Board)

These people have been rendered stateless and now do not possess the documents required to admit them back to, what is for many, a generational homeland.

Some have taken their chances at escaping the sprawling boundaries of the growing camp area. Police confirmed that 5,000 Rohingya have been returned to the confines of the border after attempting to enter into different parts of Bangladesh.

Their entry to this country comes with tight conditions and as accommodating as their hosts have been, the Rohingya are not welcome to roam. They have been labelled an "unbearable additional burden" by the Bangladeshi government.

Dust, mud and the overwhelming swell of hundreds of thousands of distressed people define these camps now; some of them well established and resourced, others haphazard and in dire need of support.

Jack Rohingya refugee story. Filippo Grandi
UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi tours the Kutupalong Refugee Camp. (Photo: Jack Board)

On a tour of Kutupalong camp on Saturday, UNHCR commissioner Filippo Grandi remarked how had been impacted by the trauma resonating among its occupants.

"I was struck by the fear that these people carry of what they have gone through. It will take a long time for people to heal their wounds," he said.

"This is a place of severe need."

While aid mechanisms are slowly being rolled out, still preparations – wishful as they might be – are being made to return the UMN to where they came from.

Jack Rohingya refugee story. Schools
Schools for refugees have been temporarily closed during this period of crisis. (Photo: Jack Board)

Since 1995, language skills have been taught in Kutupalong camp for both children and adults. The priority language for authorities has been for teaching Burmese, said Muhammad Shahjahan, an officer at Myanmar Language Lab.

It is meant to provide better opportunities and a better chance at assimilation for the Rohingya people. However, it is not the language of choice for those learning.

“Honestly speaking, their preference is English, not Burmese. They dream and hope that they will be resettled in other countries,” he said.

Even if they could go back, the aspirations of so many are of lands far afield from the prolonged torment of an unwelcome life in Myanmar.

(Additional reporting by Muktadir Rashid.)

Source: CNA/rw