Rohingya refugees at camps of south-eastern Bangladesh started a three-day strike from Monday to voice their objections to the issuance of “Smart Cards” and other problems.

Refugee shops and restaurants remained closed in most of the camps and Rohingya volunteers working for international non-government organizations (NGOs) and other aid agencies did not show up for work as part of their protests.

More than 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas fled Myanmar following an army crackdown in Rakhine State last year, according to United Nation (UN) agencies.

The Rohingya refugees, many of whom had lived in Myanmar for generations, had been denied citizenship, freedom of movement, health services and higher education since 1982. They were also not recognized as ethnic Rohingya, but were deemed to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The Smart Cards, which were started to be distributed before the scheduled repatriation starting on November 15, identified a Rohingya refugee as a “Forcibly Displaced Myanmar National.”

The refugees inside the camp were protesting at the exclusion of the word Rohingya, which they say is their ethnic identity.

“I am a Rohingya and I want that to be mentioned in my identification card,” said Tyab Ali, a refugee in Camp-12 at Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar. “I won’t take that card until I get that recognition.”

Ali also refused to take the Smart Card as he feared that upon receiving the card he would be forcibly repatriated to Myanmar. “I don’t want to go back there. I saw what they [the Myanmar army] had done to my family.”

The Rohingya had to flee from their homes when Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist civilians massacred families, burned villages and carried out gang-rapes. UN-mandated investigators have even accused the Myanmar army of “genocidal intent” and ethnic cleansing, reported Reuters.

A week before the protests, the Bangladesh government tried starting the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their homeland in Rakhine State, but abandoned the plan as the refugees refused to return to Myanmar.

Demands of the Rohingya refugees

Leaders of the Rohingya refugees issued a press statement on Monday, a copy of which was obtained by Asia Times. It listed four demands as the reasons behind their protest.

Rohingya-1
Press Statement by leaders of the Rohingya refugees.

The statement marked the importance of the term Rohingya and also expressed their concerns about the collection of biometric data and personal documents by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

They said if the UNHCR shared the data with the Myanmar government then the government could use it to label them as “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) members” or “Bengali foreigners” like in the past and it could even “make trouble” for their families.

The statement also complained that many decisions – like the Smart Card distribution, the UNHCR Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Myanmar government and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees – were taken without consulting them.

Authorities’ stance

Speaking with Asia Times, UNHCR spokesperson Firas Al-Khateeb said the UNHCR was aware of the fact that members of the refugee community were “peacefully voicing their opinions regarding the ongoing joint Government of Bangladesh-UNHCR verification exercise.”

“Refugees are consulted regularly and often express their opinion on matters that impact their lives. However, they also express diverse opinions,” said Khateeb. 

He added that the Bangladesh government and UNHCR jointly launched a verification exercise for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in June 2018. “The joint verification exercise will help to consolidate a unified database for the purposes of identity management, documentation, protection, provision of assistance, population statistics and ultimately solutions in Bangladesh,” he said.

“The verification exercise is aimed at providing Rohingya refugees with enhanced protection and ensures their access to services in Bangladesh. It is not linked to repatriation. Today, refugees from the community continued to take part in the verification exercise,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

He also said that any decision to return to Myanmar must be based on the “individual and voluntary choice of refugees and when they feel conditions are safe for them to do so.”

“Any process associated with voluntary repatriation, including assessments of their willingness to return, should and will be carried out separately from the current verification exercise,” Khateeb added.

Abul Kalam, the Commissioner at Refugees, Relief and Repatriation (RRRC), told Asia Times that he went to the camps to talk with the refugees. “They are protesting based on some misconception. The Smart Cards are only for the internal usage of Bangladesh. It has nothing to do with Myanmar authorities.”

Asked about using the word Rohingya on Smart Cards, Kalam said: “It is not necessary to mention the word in the card.”

(With additional reporting by Tauhidul Islam from Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh)