Australia offers to pay Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar

Exclusive: Rohingya sent to detention island in Papua New Guinea pressured to return to Myanmar, where thousands have fled ethnic persecution

Australia is promising thousands of dollars to Rohingya refugees who agree to return to Myanmar, a country that has been accused of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority.

Asylum seekers in the Australian-run detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, have been pressured by officials to return to their home countries, even if they face violence.

Papua New Guinea’s supreme court last year ruled the centre for around 800 people breached human rights, was illegal and must close. Australia has since ratcheted up efforts to clear the centre, offering up to A$25,000 to refugees agreeing to go home.

Returning Rohingya to their country could put their lives at risk. Myanmar does not recognise the ethnic minority and has conducted military operations in Rohingya villages that the United Nations’ top human rights official branded “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Close to 400,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, many with bullet wounds and stories of mass killings, as their villages burn.

The Guardian understands up to seven Rohingya may be facing return from Manus Island and spoke to two refugees in PNG who said they were going back.

Yahya Tabani, a 32-year-old Rohingya man who arrived in Australia in 2013 but was sent to Manus Island, said he had no choice but to return.

“I don’t want to stay in PNG,” said Tabani, who used to sell mobile accessories. “I don’t want to die in PNG. I prefer to die in Myanmar. Probably Buddhist people are going to kill me as soon as I arrive in Myanmar … Australia doesn’t care if we live or we die.”

He said he had been promised A$25,000 by the Australian Border Force. He had not yet received any money and does not have a bank account into which it can be paid. Tabani was waiting in the PNG capital Port Moresby for his travel documents.

“I have no right to get citizenship and can’t go to school. I didn’t get any basic rights. Immigration [the Australian immigration department] said I have to live in PNG or go home.”

He said he had been attacked by locals in PNG, who he claims killed another detainee, an Iranian man. They were looking for money, he said. Physical and sexual abuse has been reported on Manus, one asylum seeker was murdered by guards, while others have died from medical neglect and local residents and soldiers have stormed the centre.

Another Rohingya refugee, currently held in Port Moresby ahead of a slated return to Myanmar, spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity for fear of recriminations against himself and his family.

“I am going back because my family are being persecuted by the Myanmar government. My family are in a violent place. I need to save them and look after them.”

He said he had been arrested in Myanmar previously, and feared further persecution upon return.

“But the reason why I leave PNG is there is too much torturing, they treat us as prisoners and they kill us mentally. That is more scary for me, that’s what I decided to go back. Better is leaving PNG, I can see my parents before Australia and PNG authorities make me a fool mentally, or killed physically.”

The Australian and PNG governments have vowed the Manus detention centre will be completely shut down by 31 October. Officials have been withdrawing basic services in different sections to force people out.

“It would be unthinkable to send any Rohingya back to Myanmar – in the midst of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against them,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sending them home right now would be a death sentence.”

She said the move “speaks volumes about the dangerous conditions and hopelessness that refugees on Manus have had to endure, that Rohingya refugees would even contemplate going back in ... the midst of an ethnic cleansing campaign”.

The Obama administration agreed to consider resettling in the US up 1,250 men, woman and children refugees sent by Australia to Manus Island and Nauru. But Donald Trump described the agreement as a “dumb deal” and in his first phone call with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, asked: “Why have you not let them into your society?... Maybe you should let them out of prison.”

On the offshore detention islands, faith in the American agreement is fading. The US is not obliged to take a single refugee under the deal, only to consider them for resettlement, and 10 months after the deal was struck, no one has been accepted to go to the US.

In Canberra the Australian government has resolutely maintained no one detained on Manus or Nauru will ever be resettled in Australia. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection referred questions to the government of Papua New Guinea.

On Tuesday, when the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, was asked if Australia would consider taking any Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, she said Australia wanted them to return to their country if possible.

Speaking from New York, where she has been attending United Nations meetings, she said Australia was providing a further $15m in humanitarian support to ease the crisis, particularly to Bangladesh.

“We want to see a ceasefire, an end to the violence, and then for the Rohingyas to be able to return to Rakhine state,” she told the ABC’s AM program.

“That was the collective view around the table of ministers, that we wanted to see the Rohingyas return to their homes.

“So I’m afraid there’s going to be considerable discussion here about the best way to achieve that. But nevertheless, the international community appeared to be united in its concerns to ensure that Rakhine state is stabilised and we can bring peace and security to it.”


Oliver Holmes and Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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