COX'S BAZAAR, Bangladesh (RNS) — When 60-year-old Dil Mohammad found out in November that he was on a list of some 2,000 Rohingya refugees to be sent back to Myanmar, he grabbed the bottle of rat poison and poured it down his throat. His wife forced him to vomit and rushed him to the nearby Médecins Sans Frontières hospital.
To Mohammad, suicide, a grave sin in Islam, was preferable to returning to the persecution that his people have suffered for decades in their historic home in western Myanmar.
“It’s better to die in Bangladesh, where I would get a proper Islamic burial, than be killed in Myanmar for being Muslim,” he said. “God will forgive my act of suicide because he knows our pain.”
Some 700,000 Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from northern Rakhine state across the border in Myanmar, have flooded into refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when Rohingya militants known as ARSA (the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) attacked Myanmar border police, setting off a violent retaliation. Rohingya villages have been razed and Myanmar troops have allegedly raped and killed thousands of Rohingya civilians.
Mohammad and his family, fearing for their lives, walked for days through forests in torrential rain, arriving in Bangladesh in September 2017.
“There was nothing here when we arrived, just trees and land,” said Mohammad. Local Bangladeshi families helped the refugees set up shelters and provided food and water until aid groups and Bangladesh’s armed forces arrived to set up makeshift camps.
Abdul Hamid, a community leader in the camps, said he left a flourishing restaurant business and expansive ancestral farmland in Myanmar. Now he and his family live off meager rations of rice and lentils supplemented by occasional meat and vegetables when they manage to secure cash. They sleep in a dusty hut with sewage running in a gutter out front.
“We struggle with the refugee life here, but we’re grateful to be alive. We’d rather die here than be killed just for being Muslim in Myanmar,” Hamid said.
In October, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to put into effect a bilateral repatriation agreement, with the first 150 refugees scheduled to return in mid-November. The plan was opposed by the U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, and other aid groups, as well as by the refugees.
“When I heard we were on the list, I sent my family away to one camp and I ran away to another,” said Hamid.
A few weeks before repatriation began, officials from Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission summoned 54 refugees and, according to Hamid, told them that those who were willing to go back to Myanmar would receive identification cards to replace ones that had been confiscated in Myanmar under a 1982 law that stripped the Rohingya and other minorities of their citizenship.
That measure also prohibited them from traveling, while making life at home difficult. It blocked access to state schools beyond primary grades, made minorities ineligible for government jobs and placed restrictions on marriage, family planning and religious choice.
Besides proving their identity, the assembled refugees were told in November, their new cards would guarantee them certain rights.
“They told us Bangladesh would bring us back if we were treated badly there, but how are we supposed to believe that?” asked Hamid.
Khairul Bashir, another community leader, said he and his family were also on the list, adding that all the families in his section of the camp were ready to take poison if the authorities forced them to go.
“There’s a mice problem in the camps right now, so we all have rat poison in the house,” Bashir explained. “We were all prepared to die.”
According to a recent Amnesty International report, satellite images show that Myanmar’s military has built bases and roads where the Rohingya villages once stood.
“None of us are ready to go back until the 1982 law is repealed and we get full rights as citizens in Myanmar,” explained Mohammad Ilyas, whose name has been modified to conceal the identity of his family.
One of the few educated members of his community, Ilyas, who owned a pharmacy in Myanmar, said he had taught himself about medicines after being forced to leave school after the 10th grade.
RRRC officials and UNHCR representatives approached Ilyas to help survey the families in the camp block where he lives. The agencies often come to him for help, he said, because he is respected in his community for being one of the few educated members, despite not being an official community leader. When he learned that his family was also being surveyed, he became suspicious.
On repatriation day in November, none of the 150 refugees in the first group, including Mohammad, Hamid, Bashir and Ilyas, agreed to go back. Since Bangladesh and Myanmar had agreed to only take those who were going back to Rakhine state voluntarily, the cars that were supposed to take the refugees to temporary transit camps went away empty.
During a U.N. Security Council meeting on Feb. 28, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, Shahidul Haque, called on Myanmar to address the decades-long state practices of deprivation, disenfranchisement and atrocities.
“Not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of a conducive environment there,” he told the council.
But Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated nations in the world, has been hosting more than a million refugees for more than a year. The government appears to be very much set on repatriation.
According to local media reports, preparations are underway to relocate more than 23,000 Rohingya to Bhasan Char, an uninhabited Bangladeshi island in the Bay of Bengal, starting in mid-April. The island takes two and a half hours to reach by boat, and during monsoon season the water there rises up to 8 feet above normal levels.
Human Rights Watch and aid groups have condemned Bangladesh’s decision to relocate the refugees to Bhasan Char. The U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who visited the island recently, questioned "whether the island is truly habitable," pointing out that "Ill-planned relocation, and relocations without the consent of the refugees concerned, have the potential to create a new crisis."
None of the refugees Religion News Service spoke with were willing to relocate to the island.
Haque told the Security Council that his country will no longer be able to take in any more refugees. Bangladesh’s priority now, he said, is to ensure the “safe, voluntary, sustainable and dignified return of the Rohingyas.” He called on Myanmar to dismantle existing internally displaced persons camps, where more than 130,000 Muslim inmates have been detained for more than six years.
The Rohingya have made the release of the prisoners one of their demands for returning to Myanmar.
“Once we see that our relatives in Myanmar have gotten full citizenship rights and treated humanely, no one will have to force us to go back,” explained Hamid. “We will gladly go back ourselves.”
(Jennifer Chowdhury is a 2018 reporting fellow for the South Asian Journalists Association.)