Rohingya refugees interviewed by Oxfam in Bangladesh say they will not go back to Myanmar until their safety can be guaranteed and they have equal rights, including being able to work and travel freely. Many – especially women – were deeply traumatized by their experiences, including rape and seeing loved ones killed, and said they would commit suicide if forcibly repatriated before these conditions have been met.
Refugees are unwilling to return without these guarantees despite reporting feeling unsafe at night in the overcrowded, makeshift settlements, with a very real fear of kidnapping and sexual abuse.
Oxfam spoke to more than 200 Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camps in the south-eastern district of Cox’s Bazar, some of whom were refugees for the third time. In a series of group discussions and in-depth interviews all agreed that peace and equal rights were absolute prerequisites for return.
Fatima Sultan*, a 20-year-old refugee, said: “I want to go back to my home – when we are treated as citizens, when there is no violence, when women are not tortured and kidnapped, when at last we can be free”. Sanjida Sajjad* added: “If we are forced to go back we will set ourselves on fire”.
Bangladesh and Myanmar recently agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees at the end of January. Oxfam has warned that the conditions for people to return safely and voluntarily are not yet in place and that the UN should play a lead role in any repatriation process, with humanitarian aid allowed to reach all who need it.
Oxfam is calling on the Myanmar authorities to act to end the violence and live up to their commitment to fully implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Commission report, including ensuring that all people in Myanmar have equal rights. Returns need to be safe and voluntary, with guaranteed freedom of movement. Independent investigations into human rights violations are essential, with those responsible brought to justice, as well as compensation for lost land.
The international agency says that the current crisis, in which more than 626,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 100 days, is a tipping point which should spur the international community to find a permanent solution.
Paolo Lubrano, Oxfam’s Asia humanitarian manager, said: “People we talked to were incredibly traumatized by what they had been through and now face new threats in the camps, from trafficking to sexual abuse. The fact that many refugees – particularly women – said they would rather kill themselves than return now shows the urgent need for a real and lasting solution to the decades-long oppression of Rohingya people.
“The international community has collectively failed generations of Rohingya while they have been brutally attacked and systematically discriminated against. Instead of standing by while crimes against humanity go unchecked, the UN and world leaders should take their share of responsibility and work with the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments to find a durable resolution to this crisis, through diplomacy, emergency relief and development support.
“The Bangladesh government has generously welcomed in the Rohingya - it should now recognise them all as refugees so they can receive the support they need and remove administrative barriers that are hampering the humanitarian response.”
There are now close to a million Rohingya in Bangladesh – more than in Myanmar. The UN appeal for funds to provide vital aid for the next three months is still $280million short. Refugees are living in overcrowded, disease-prone and dangerous sites that urgently need improving, many drinking contaminated water. Oxfam is providing aid including clean water and toilets, and has so far reached more than 185,000 people.
All the refugees Oxfam spoke to said they felt unsafe at night. More than half of the groups reported having seen girls and women being approached by strangers – some of whom their families then lost track of. Many women were afraid of getting lost in the camps and felt unable to leave their tents without appropriate clothing. More lighting, signposting and designated safe spaces are needed in the camps to protect vulnerable people from harm.