Rohingya women wait for food aid on muddy ground after monsoon rain at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 28. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Bangladesh's decision to reword identity cards issued to Rohingya refugees after a request from Myanmar has triggered dismay among refugees and rights activists.
Dhaka's decision to replace the words "Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals" with "Displaced Persons From Rakhine State" came following a ministerial meeting between Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and Myanmar's Minister of the Office of the State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe in Naypyidaw on Aug. 10.
Myanmar officials at the meeting objected to the original wording and argued that those who fled to Bangladesh "are not Myanmar citizens but they used to live in Rakhine," Bangladeshi daily The Daily Star reported on Aug. 17.
Dhaka has made no announcement on the issuance of amended ID cards for Rohingya refugees, but Myanmar officials reportedly said refugees would get a national verification card on their return from Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees and rights activists fear the move will leave Rohingya without a proper identity and stateless when they return to Myanmar.
"All Rohingya want to go back to Myanmar as citizens, but by putting one condition after another Myanmar seems to be playing with our lives, delaying repatriation and showing they don't want to recognize us as Myanmar citizens," Hosein Johur, 40, a Rohingya majhi (community leader) from Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, told ucanews.com.
"The Rohingya were forced to move to Bangladesh to save their lives from atrocities. It is a blatant lie when Myanmar says we were not forcibly displaced. We won't go back to Myanmar without a guarantee of citizenship, safety and peaceful living," added Johur, a father of five and former resident of Maungdaw in Rakhine.
Abdul Kalam, 36, a Rohingya father of three from Balukhali refugee camp, echoed those sentiments.
"I don't know what made Bangladesh change its mind on ID cards, but it is frustrating for us. Myanmar is telling lies and playing various tricks to bluff the Rohingya, Bangladesh and the international community so that it does not need to grant citizenship and other rights to Rohingya," Kalam, a former resident of Buthidaung in Rakhine, told ucanews.com.
A Rohingya man carries a sick woman to a nearby hospital at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Sept. 15, 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Holy Cross Father Liton Hubert Gomes, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dhaka Archdiocese, criticized the decision.
"By changing words, Bangladesh seems to be trying all possible ways to convince Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya. However, it also means Bangladesh giving in to Myanmar's stance on the Rohingya and the fact that they were driven away from Rakhine by force," Father Gomes told ucanews.com.
"Myanmar has already lost international credibility over its handling of the Rohingya issue, but Bangladesh seems to be losing an opportunity to improve its own image."
Nur Khan, a prominent rights activist, said the decision is a "moral defeat" for Bangladesh. "Technically, Bangladesh needs to do everything to ensure the safe return of refugees, but morally it has lost, and this might result in decline in the international support Bangladesh has been receiving since accepting refugees," Khan told ucanews.com.
About a dozen refugee settlements in Cox's Bazar are home to about one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine.
For decades, Rohingya have trickled into Bangladesh to escape persecution by military-controlled Myanmar governments and local Buddhists, who consider them illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and deny them citizenship even though they have lived in Rakhine for centuries.
Two brutal military crackdowns in October 2016 and August 2017, following Rohingya insurgent attacks, forced over 770,000 Rohingya to move to Bangladesh for safety, surviving on aid from Bangladesh's government and humanitarian groups in overcrowded camps.
Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner Abub Kalam said the changing of words on ID cards is not a big issue. "What's in a name? The main objective is to ensure safe repatriation of refugees to Myanmar and we believe Bangladesh is doing it right," he told ucanews.com.