The United Nations and the Bangladesh government have started formally registering hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar, a move that officials say would help their eventual return.
More than 700,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya have escaped Buddhist-majority Myanmar since last August, when attacks by Muslim insurgents triggered a military offensive that the United Nations has likened to ethnic cleansing. Myanmar denies the accusations and has said it waged a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.
The registration program started jointly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Bangladesh government this week is aimed at creating a reliable database of refugees living in camps on Bangladesh's southern coast, said Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR representative.
That data, expected to be ready by November, will have family and birth details of refugees, and will be shared with Myanmar, said Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner. "This will aid the repatriation process," Kalam said, stressing that any returns would be safe and voluntary.
Dozens of refugees queued up at a UNHCR office at the Nayapara camp, which overlooks the Myanmar border, providing fingerprints, iris scans and other information to officials.
The white registration cards refugees are being given have the logo of both the UNHCR and the Bangladesh government, and state: "This person should be protected from forcible return to a country where he/she would face threats to his/her life or freedom." They list the refugees' origin country as Myanmar.
Many refugees have reported killings, arson and rape by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist vigilantes, and say they will not return unless they are granted citizenship in Myanmar. The UNHCR said last month conditions were not yet safe for Rohingya to return.
Amnesty International released a report yesterday that details new evidence of atrocities inflicted on Myanmar's Rohingya population and names 13 top military commanders the human rights group says should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
The report is titled "We Will Destroy Everything." Amnesty said those words, spoken by a military commander in a recording of a telephone call obtained by the group's investigators, sum up the mindset of Myanmar soldiers in dealing with the Muslim Rohingya.
Amnesty said its investigative team spent nine months gathering evidence of the brutal treatment of Rohingya in a crackdown that began in August after a radical Rohingya group attacked Myanmar security force posts in the country's western Rakhine state.
The report said the Amnesty team interviewed hundreds of victims and collected harrowing new evidence of the murderous methods used to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar. Photographs and video clips, as well as expert forensic and weapons analysis, were used to bolster information.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not available for comment Wednesday morning, with calls to his cellphone not going through.
Amnesty said its evidence implicates Myanmar's military commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and 12 others in the commission of nine out of 11 types of crimes against humanity listed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It says those 12 — nine of the general's subordinates and three border guard police officers — are "those with blood on their hands." It urged that they be put on trial by the international court.
"The explosion of violence — including murder, rape, torture, burning and forced starvation — perpetrated by Myanmar's security forces in villages across northern Rakhine State was not the action of rogue soldiers or units," Matthew Wells, an Amnesty crisis researcher who spent weeks at Myanmar's border with Bangladesh, said in the report. "There is a mountain of evidence that this was part of a highly orchestrated, systematic attack on the Rohingya population."