I. SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The title of this report is taken from a United Nations High Commissioner forRefugees (UNHCR) report of June 1995 on the repatriation of over 200,000 Burmeserefugees, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, from Bangladesh to theirhome state of Arakan in northern Burma. The repatriation is being held up as a success storyby the UNHCR in speeches of senior officials as well as in publications, including its annualreport,
State of the World's Refugees 1995
. For the UNHCR, the return of so many refugeesby early 1996, most of whom had left Burma in 1991 and 1992, was a vindication of its shiftfrom providing refugee relief to promoting voluntary repatriation as the most durable solutionto refugee problems.But the story of the Rohingyas was not over: the cycle of exodus has not ended.On April 20, 1996, fifteen Burmese Muslims, part of a group of 150 who were seekingasylum in Bangladesh, drowned in the Naf river as they were being towed back to Burma bythe Bangladesh Border Rifles, a branch of the Bangladesh army. All fifteen were women andyoung children. This incident brought much-needed attention to the plight of some 5,000 newasylum seekers who had entered Bangladesh since the end of February 1996. By the end of May their number had risen to an estimated 10,000. The Bangladesh government had refusedUNHCR access to the new arrivals and was intent on sending them all back. Its securityforces arrested 254 refugees without permitting them to apply for asylum and forciblyreturned an estimated 200 others in violation of international standards.
These new arrivals came to Bangladesh at a time when the UNHCR was attempting towind up the repatriation of the Rohingya who had fled violent abuse by the Burmese militaryin 1991 and 1992. As one journalist put it, "The influx is something of an embarrassment forthe UNHCR...[who] fear that any move to help the newcomers would spur others tofollow."
Having conducted only a handful of individual interviews, the UNHCRinDhaka
publicly stated that all the new arrivals were “economic migrants” who were
escaping poverty not persecution, and stepped up efforts inside Arakan State to ensure thatthose planning to leave would not do so.The 1996 exodus from Burma
raises several important questions about the UNHCR’s
repatriation operation from Bangladesh and about the promotion of 'voluntary' return to