Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees may be at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after the UN improperly collected and shared refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) for the past three years has registered more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladeshi camps in order to provide them with identity cards needed to access essential aid and services.
But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.
“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”
The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.
Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and]separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.
But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.
They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.
One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.
“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.
“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”
Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.
“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.
Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.
UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”. (Source: The Guardian)