Wednesday 7 June 2023

Cash Incentives and Coercion: The Controversial Strategy for Rohingya Repatriation

Source TheDiplomat, 2 June

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh report being offered $2,000 to return to Myanmar – and threatened with beatings if they do not.

Reports of coercive tactics and cash incentives being employed by the Bangladeshi government to induce Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar have stirred concern among human rights advocates and humanitarian agencies. The authorities in Bangladesh are reportedly utilizing misinformation, threats of violence, and financial incentives as part of a larger strategy aimed at facilitating the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, roughly 1 million of whom are currently residing in camps in Bangladesh.

Beginning on May 30, Bangladeshi authorities reportedly initiated a campaign on Bhasan Char, a silt island serving as a makeshift refugee camp, promising Rohingya families a cash incentive of $2,000 if they agreed to return to Myanmar. According to two refugees who have come forward to speak about the offer, a similar proposal was extended in Teknaf on May 29. 

By May 31, around 300 Rohingya families had expressed their intention to participate in the pilot repatriation program. By June 1, there was a significant surge of families, not initially listed for repatriation, lining up in Bhasan Char to avail of this offer.

Critics are wary of the motivations behind the cash incentive, equating the amount – even the very few educated refugees working for NGOs might take two years to earn $2,000 – to coercive tactics that exploit the desperate financial situations faced by these refugees. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, "#RohingyaRefugees in Bangladesh were promised cash, livelihood, health, education to relocate to Bhasan Char—many risked drowning to flee. Now similar promises are dangled for repatriation to Myanmar where conditions remain unsafe, with no guarantee of rights protection." Providing first-hand insight, Sayed, a resident of Bhasan Char, recalled an unexpected announcement over the mosque's loudspeaker on May 30. The announcement asked families to report to the Camp-in-Charge (CiC) office the next day if they were willing to return to Myanmar. The announcement promised a cash incentive of $2,000.




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Notably, Sayed said that the announcement specified that both spouses, along with their children, had to agree to return. Furthermore, Sayed found that the announcement hadn't been broadcast on loudspeakers in all clusters; instead, majhis, or camp wardens, had informed certain clusters door-to-door.

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Alongside these financial incentives, other tactics reportedly used to encourage repatriation have raised alarm. Refugees claim that they are receiving misinformation about conditions in Myanmar. A video circulating on social media allegedly shows a staffer of the CiC telling a refugee that Rohingya are now a recognized ethnic group in Myanmar, among the existing 135 groups. Paired with threats of violence by Bangladeshi authorities, such misinformation has led to heightened concerns about potential coercion. Critics argue that these practices undermine the principle of free and informed decision-making, a cornerstone of any voluntary return process.

A Rohingya refugee, requesting to maintain anonymity, agreed to record a video detailing an encounter with an official known as Anwar, who reportedly threatened refugees with beatings if they refused to return. The official was quoted in the video as saying, "Is this your father's country? You have to return. You cannot stay here. If you do not go, after three days, we will beat you. You absolutely have to go."

In another recorded testimony, an elderly woman shared her experiences with Bangladeshi authorities and National Security Intelligence (NSI) officials. Maintaining her anonymity, she detailed instances of threats, intimidation, and the potential of physical violence. In the video, she is heard saying, "The authorities informed us that we would be 'forcefully sent back to Myanmar,' regardless of our objections or concerns, by 'beating us.'" She also mentioned an incident where an individual's ration card was photographed, suggesting the possibility of ration card cancellation if Rohingya refuse to return.


Jeff Crisp, formerly the head of Policy Development and Evaluation Service at UNHCR, said the pressure on these refugees to return to an unsafe country under the guise of "voluntary repatriation" is disturbingly reminiscent of tactics that have been used in other parts of the world. The "experience in other parts of the world indicates that some refugees accept such 'repatriation grants' as a means of paying off the debts they have accumulated. Which means that they have little or none of the money left by the time that they get back to their own country."

Throughout this complex issue, the recurring themes have been coercion and financial incentives – tactics that many argue exploit the vulnerable position of Rohingya refugees. The motivations behind the Bangladeshi government's approach, and the impacts it has on the refugees' rights and their welfare, are under intense scrutiny from refugee advocates and human rights organizations.

However, despite the criticisms and concerns, the Bangladeshi government and the international community have yet to find a solution that adequately addresses the safety, welfare, and rights of the Rohingya refugees. As Maung Zarni of the Free Rohingya Coalition aptly put it, "Bangladesh's decision to offer such financial incentives to return refugees to the killing fields of Myanmar raises questions about the true motivations behind the program's sponsors and the respect for the refugees' rights and well-being."


Shafiur Rahman

Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently working on Rohingya issues.