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Fortify Rights: End Pushbacks of Rohingya Refugees, Investigate Beatings

Mizzima


Bangladesh authorities beat and forcibly returned Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Myanmar.


The Government of Bangladesh should investigate and hold to account Bangladesh officials involved in beating and forcibly returning to Myanmar Rohingya refugees fleeing war and ongoing genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, says Fortify Rights.


New research by Fortify Rights finds Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) forces responsible for beating and pushing back more than 300 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar since February 2024 in six incidents.


“Despite being acutely aware of the ongoing violence in Myanmar, Bangladesh continues to push back Rohingya refugees at its border, and its officials are responsible for beating refugees fleeing atrocities in Myanmar,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Bangladesh rightly welcomed 700,000 refugees in 2017. It should protect Rohingya fleeing ongoing genocide and other atrocities and hold border guards accountable for violating the rights of the refugees.”


Between February and April 2024, Fortify Rights interviewed nine Rohingya from Maungdaw Township who fled the ongoing war and genocide in Rakhine State and BGB forces pushed back to Myanmar. Fortify Rights also spoke to a Bangladesh naval officer in Teknaf, Bangladesh on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Six of the nine Rohingya interviewed described how BGB officials, formerly known as the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), beat them.


“I was hit once with a bamboo stick,” a 28-year-old Rohingya man from Myanmar’s Rakhine State who fled fighting in Leik Ya village between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA)—an ethnic resistance group operating in Rakhine State. “I had two young sisters beaten, and my brother-in-law was beaten. Altogether, five people were beaten.”


Continuing, he said:

[The BGB] hit my back with a bamboo stick. My back was swollen from being hit. I felt bad after being beaten, but I had to tolerate being hit because I wanted to get to Bangladesh. There were three border guards. It was around 4 a.m. when we were beaten.


The man explained how he and his family fled to Bangladesh to escape armed conflict between the AA and Myanmar military. His home was burned down during the fighting, and three of his relatives were killed, including his five-year-old nephew. He said:


I saw four [Myanmar military] helicopters. They were shooting at the village. When the helicopter shot, the bombs that came down were a red and white color; they were shooting for half an hour. … The military shot towards our village from the hill, and the AA shot at the military base from our village. The AA was using our village. The AA never told us to evacuate. [The military] used both guns and shelling. The shelling is from a mortar fire from the military. I could see some of the fighting when I was fleeing.


The man fled Myanmar together with a group of approximately 60 other Rohingya. On 6 March 2024, the BGB stopped the group, beat several members of the group, and pushed them back to Myanmar.

“I had mud all over my body from the hard journey walking,” the man told Fortify Rights. “I was holding my young boy when they hit me on my back. My young boy is five years old. He screamed when the border guards hit me.”


Another 41-year-old Rohingya man from Maungdaw Township similarly experienced beatings by the BGB on 7 February 2024 when he and his family and dozens of other Rohingya attempted to cross the border into Bangladesh. He said:


[The BGB] beat the people who first approached them to cross the border. They also beat me with two [strikes]. I was holding my child while they hit me. The stick [they used] was about two hands long. They hit me on my back. … When I was beaten, the child began shouting. Then, they did not beat me further.


The woman’s husband witnessed the beating, saying: “I saw my husband was beaten by the BDR [now known as BGB] when we tried to cross the border. He was beaten with two strikes. … I was just two feet away from my husband when he was beaten.”


Describing the officials encountered, the man said:

[The BGB officers’] uniform is black and brown camouflage. They built small outposts along the border, and two or three people stayed there. I saw eight outposts. [The BGB] patrol the border all night. …We were not allowed to cross the border. …The BDR [BGB] told us, “Why are you coming here? Go back where you come from.” There were three members of BDR [BGB], and they had a bamboo stick in their hands.


Confirming this incident, the man’s wife said, “[The officers] told my husband, ‘You cannot come and stay here. Go back. This is not your country. Go back to your country. You cannot enter here. ’There were about eight to ten BGB members talking to my husband.”


The woman also told Fortify Rights about being stranded on Bilashordiya island in the Naf River between Myanmar and Bangladesh after the BGB pushed the group back to Myanmar:

We stayed on the island for three or four days without any food. … The border guard in Bangladesh pushed us back on the first day we arrived at the border. When we tried to enter the border, the guards told us, “You cannot come here. You are from Myanmar; go back to where you come from.”


The woman also told Fortify Rights why she and others fled to Bangladesh:


When the AA arrived at the village, we all came out of the house. … I saw many AA members. … They began firing [weapons at the Myanmar junta]. We could not count them as we were busy saving our lives. We were shouting at that time. There was firing from the sky and on the ground and people were trying to escape wherever they could.


At the time of writing, the husband and wife were still in Myanmar, unable to cross into Bangladesh.

Another Rohingya woman, 25, from Maungdaw Township and a mother of four children similarly told Fortify Rights about BGB forcing her back to Myanmar in mid-February. She said:


We requested the border guards to stay [in Bangladesh]. We said, “We will give you whatever you ask for. Please let us in [the country]. We cannot go back home. Our houses were burned down. Our husbands were being taken away [by the AA].” They replied, “You cannot enter here at all.”


In April, a Bangladesh Navy officer confirmed the pushback policy to Fortify Rights, saying, “The authorities strictly do not allow the Rohingya. That is why we pushed them back. The Rohingya are a burden for us.”


In February, BGB Major General Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Siddiqui confirmed pushbacks in the media, saying, “Some 65 Rohingyas, who tried to enter the country by a boat, were sent back.”


Fortify Rights documented six occasions when BGB forces pushed back Rohingya refugees, including on 6 and 7 February, 2024, two incidents in mid-February, and on 6 and 20 March, 2024. (The documentation by Fortify Rights is not exhaustive and does not preclude the possibility of other pushback incidents during the same time frame).


For example, a 28-year-old Rohingya man and father of four children told Fortify Rights how the BGB beat him and forced him back to Myanmar in early February. He said:


After approaching the BDR [BGB] at the border, we told them, “We are not able to live in our village; the helicopter is dropping bombs. The militant groups are abusing us. Our houses were burnt down.” They replied, “… Why did not you come in the last time influx?” The BDR [BGB] said, “You cannot come here at all. Go back to where you came from. Go back and stay at your burned houses. Go back to wherever you want, but you cannot come here.”


Speaking about how the BGB beat him, he said:

[The BGB] hit me twice with their black rubber sticks. They beat both the host community man [supporting us to cross the border] and the three of us [Rohingya]. They beat the host community man, asking him why he brought Rohingya to the country. … I was hit with two strikes on my leg. I was hit on my thigh. They hit me heavily and it was painful. … Only one BDR [BGB] beat four of us.


The man also described the border guards, saying: “They all have guns, and their uniform is camouflage. I saw 16 BDR [BGB] there in their shelter. Some of them have sticks as well. Those who have the stick do not have the gun. The uniform is brown and black in color and camouflage.”

Fortify Rights spoke to two Rohingya men who fled Myanmar on 20 and 21 March 2024, respectively, to escape forced conscription into the Myanmar military. One man who crossed from Tha Yet Oke village in Myanmar described how BGB member intercepted him. He said:


I saw two BDRs [BGB officers] and one informant who was like a man working with BDR [BGB]. They caught us on the boat. … When they saw us approaching closer to the Bangladesh side of the river, they drove very fast and caught us. Four of us were trying to get out of the boat and cross, but they caught us.


He continued, saying: “[The BGB] said, ‘You go back to your country and work to liberate it by shedding your blood. ’They said, ‘Don’t set foot in Bangladesh. ’They said, ‘If we see you again trying to cross, we will not keep your skin on your back.’”


Another 25-year-old Rohingya man fleeing conscription in Myanmar on 21 March 2024 told Fortify Rights:


I was afraid [the BGB] were not going to let me enter the country. … They searched my bag, which had documents from Myanmar. One of the border guards slapped me. … [The BGB officer] was yelling at me. I could not understand him. I cried when he slapped me. My tears were coming down my face.

The man continued: “I told the BGB, ‘Please kill me here. I don’t want to go back to Myanmar. … I have a sister here [in Bangladesh]. ’I am afraid that if I go back, I will be forced to join the military in their conscription campaign.”

Amid mass defections and increased battlefield losses to pro-democracy revolutionary forces, the Myanmar military junta recently introduced a conscription “law,” imposing mandatory military “service” on Myanmar citizens. Men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 are eligible conscripts.


The military has long denied that the Rohingya people exist, and it has long denied them access to citizenship or belonging in Myanmar; nevertheless, it is targeting Rohingya for conscription. In light of this campaign, U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews has called for stronger international action to protect increasingly vulnerable populations in Myanmar, including Rohingya.


Bangladesh authorities have said publicly that they would not allow more Rohingya refugees into the country. Recently, on 7 February 2024, Obaidul Quader, the Bangladesh minister for Road Transport and Bridges, told the media: “We will not allow any more Rohingya to enter the country. … They have already become a burden for us. … Keeping Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh has become a threat to our security, our law and order. It is creating a vulnerable situation for cross-border crime.”


Later, in February 2024, echoing the same sentiments, Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar, told the media: “We are already overburdened. … The people of Bangladesh certainly will not welcome any more Rohingya here. Hospitality in the host community has turned into hostility. In this context, there is nothing much we can do for the newly displaced [Rohingya].”


Bangladesh also reportedly sent back Myanmar Border Guard Police, who fled Rakhine State in February 2024. Fortify Rights publicly called for the Government of Bangladesh to investigate newly arrived Myanmar border guard police for their possible involvement in atrocity crimes in Myanmar and coordinate with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) ongoing investigation into crimes against Rohingya people. Bangladesh should not force any border guards back to Myanmar, said Fortify Rights.

Fortify Rights has also previously documented how members of the Armed Police Battalion—a specialized combat unit of the Bangladesh police force—arbitrarily detained and tortured Rohingya refugees while systematically demanding corrupt payments that amount to extortion.


Although Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the Convention provides authoritative guidance on refugee protection under international law. Under the Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution. Refugee status and the attendant protections for refugees extend to any individual who meets the definition of a refugee, according to Fortify Rights.


Moreover, Bangladesh is a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which explicitly protects against refoulement. The CAT states, “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”


The principle of non-refoulement is also legally binding on all states under customary international law.


The Myanmar military has long employed torture, and the risks of torture in the country are now extremely high. In a 196-page report, “Nowhere is Safe,” Fortify Rights and the Schell Center at Yale Law School documented how the Myanmar military and police were responsible for the widespread and systematic torture of detainees, amounting to crimes against humanity, following the Myanmar military coup d’état in February 2021. More recently, on 12 April 2024, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) published evidence that the military junta and affiliated armed groups tortured civilians in eastern Myanmar between January and December 2023.


Other threats of violence and persecution against returned refugees are also well-founded, said Fortify Rights. When the Myanmar junta launched attacks against the AA in January and February 2024, Fortify Rights documented the junta’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians, killings, destruction of civilian homes, and forced displacement that may amount to war crimes.


This month, Fortify Rights and Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School released a new study on mental harm as genocide against Rohingya. The study addresses how inflicting mental harm can destroy a group of people in whole or in part, focusing specifically on the Rohingya genocide.


More than a million Rohingya refugees, many of whom fled genocidal attacks by the Myanmar military in 2016 and 2017, live in overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. An estimated 500,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, Myanmar and continue to face genocide and other international crimes as well as restrictions of basic rights, including freedom of movement and equal access to full citizenship rights, according to Fortify Rights.


“ Bangladesh and other governments should focus on ensuring accountability for mass atrocities and protecting refugees instead of sending them back,” said said Fortify Rights’ Amy Smith. “The international community must act together to refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC prosecutor before it’s too late, and we must all work collectively to ensure the people of Myanmar can access justice without delay."


 

Mizzima, 2024

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