* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Children and their families must not be forced to return under any repatriation deal without guarantees of their safety
As the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations visits Myanmar’s Rakhine state today, Britain must use its influence to call the Burmese government to account on the crisis that has forced 700,000 refugees to flee into Bangladesh.
Karen Pierce, part of an unprecedented UN delegation, is expected to use this week’s visit to raise the issue of repatriation. This is an opportune moment for Britain to champion human rights, and ensure a safe future for almost half a million refugee children and their families.
I travelled last week to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where these refugees live huddled in tiny bamboo shelters covering every ridge, hill and valley across a vast, scarred landscape.
Myanmar is visible on the horizon; so close that a ‘Welcome to Myanmar’ message popped up on my phone. The country lies just across the Naf River, along the half-built Bangladesh-Myanmar Friendship Road that will one day run all the way to Yangon. But ‘welcome’ and ‘friendship’ are not the words that came to mind as children described to me the suffering they have endured. Other words and places do: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. The evil of which humans are capable. The failure of governments to protect innocent citizens, and to bring peace and justice.
Failure to protect children like Fatima*. A bright-eyed 11-year-old, she enthusiastically showed us around World Vision’s children’s centre where she spends each morning. Playing and learning with friends provides some respite from the struggle of daily life and the tragedy that drove her to Bangladesh.
Fatima invited me to her family’s small, stick-frame shelter, where her mother showed me the scar from a machete cut she got trying to rescue her son during violence in Myanmar. “I couldn’t save him,” she told me.
Fatima’s sister Tasleem, 14, is haunted by the horrors she saw; her friend was doused in kerosene and set alight. Life is not easy since their escape but “at least we can sleep peacefully here, without being afraid,” Fatima’s father said. “I want to go home, but I’d rather be here even with all the problems.”
Most of the children in Cox’s Bazar have experienced violence that could reverberate for generations. Their resilience is extraordinary, but the weight of the past remains. “Are you preparing to shoot us?” asked a small boy as my colleague set up his camera and tripod.
These children saw their homes destroyed and their loved ones killed. Grieving and afraid, they are bracing for the coming monsoon season, precariously perched in flimsy shelters on eroded hillsides. A disaster on top of the disaster they have already survived could push them past breaking point, while the hope of returning home is overshadowed by the fear of what may await them there.
The UN has warned Myanmar is not yet “conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees.” Children and their families must not be forced to return under any repatriation deal without guarantees of their safety. Any returns need to be voluntary, and the Government must be held to account to ensure that refugees do not return to the same violence that prompted their exodus.
A repatriation agreement may take years to negotiate and implement. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi authorities must protect refugees and provide basic services. Immediate action is needed to prevent deaths during the coming rainy season.
More political will is needed from all actors to protect children like Fatima and Tasleem from further suffering. This week, Karen Pierce must do all she can to ensure that their future is at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy.
*Names changed to protect identities
Justin Byworth, Global Humanitarian Director at World Vision International