Rohingya refugees gather to mark the second anniversary of the exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Image Credit: Reuters

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees marked the second anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar into Bangladesh by rallying, crying and praying on Sunday as they demanded that Myanmar grant them citizenship and other rights before they agree to return.

The rally was held days after Bangladesh, with the help of the UN refugee agency, attempted to start the repatriation of 3,450 Rohingya Muslims — a small fraction of the 700,000 who fled a 2017 security crackdown in Myanmar. None agreed to go back, citing fear for their safety and a lack of confidence in Myanmar. The UNHCR said that building confidence was essential for repatriation.

The police chief in Cox’s Bazar, A.B.M. Masud Hussain, said at least 50,000 refugees protested peacefully for hours in the camps on Sunday. “We alerted all, including the aid agency officials, but the situation was under control and peaceful,” he said after the rally ended.

Myanmar had scheduled August 22 for the beginning of the repatriation process, but it failed for a second time after a first attempt last November.

The repatriation deal is based on an understanding that the return has to be “safe, dignified and voluntary.” The refugees have also insisted on receiving Myanmar citizenship and other rights that the Buddhist-majority nation has refused to grant them.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina said her administration will not use force to send them back despite a huge burden on the South Asian country. More than 1 million Rohingya are currently in Bangladesh.

At the Kutupalong refugee camp on Sunday, some carried placards and banners reading “Never again! Rohingya Genocide Remembrance Day” and “Restore our citizenship.”

They raised their hands during a prayer session and cried, many loudly, as an imam led the sermon with an emotional narration of their sufferings. The prayer was held for the victims of the killings, rape and arson attacks by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist militias.

“Oh Allah, how much blood we have to give to have peace in our life? We have been shedding our blood for decades and now we are here. Please help us, we want to go back,” said the imam.

“We want to tell the world that we want our rights back, we want citizenship, we want our homes and land back,” said Muhib Ullah, one of the organisers of Sunday’s rally. “Myanmar is our country. We are Rohingya.”

Myanmar has consistently denied human rights violations and says military operations in Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya fled from, were justified in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

A UN-established investigation last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the crackdown on the Rohingya. Myanmar dismissed the allegations.

On Thursday, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released a new report concluding that rapes of Rohingya by Myanmar’s security forces were systemic and demonstrated the intent to commit genocide. The report said the discrimination Myanmar practised against the Rohingya in peacetime aggravated the sexual violence toward them during times of conflict.

Fortify Rights, a human rights group that has documented abuses in Myanmar, has called on Myanmar’s government to implement recommendations from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was appointed by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 and led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The commission recommended that the government end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, ensure full humanitarian access, tackle Rohingya statelessness, “revisit” the 1982 Citizenship Law and punish perpetrators of abuses.

On Thursday, the UNHCR said in a statement that the agency and the UN Development Program had sought effective access in Myanmar.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said that concerted efforts were needed “to really raise the pressure on the Burmese generals. We’re talking about targeted sanctions, we’re talking about an arms embargo.”