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Saudi to deport scores of Rohingya refugees ‘against will’ to Bangladesh

Rohingya detainees say they can prove their identities to the Saudis with their old Burmese ID cards
Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during her four-day visit to Saudi Arabia in October (SPA)

Saudi Arabia is preparing to forcibly remove scores of Rohingya refugees "against their will" to Bangladesh after imprisoning them for an indefinite period inside a Saudi detention centre, activists and imprisoned Rohingya told Middle East Eye.

The planned deportations come after Saudi Arabia ordered Bangladesh to take back more than a hundred Rohingya who came on Bangladeshi passports to the Gulf kingdom - amid fears that Bangladesh is repatriating Rohingya to Myanmar.

Those being prepared for deportation from Saudi Arabia have told Middle East Eye they have Burmese ID cards to prove they are Rohingya from Myanmar - a country more than 700,000 of them have fled since August 2017 to avoid persecution from the army - and not Bangladeshi. 

“What will we do when we got to Bangladesh? We have no other choice but to kill ourselves."

- Abdul Ghulam, Rohingya detainee inside Shumaisi detention centre

The detainees had begun to be processed for removal to Bangladesh just days after a visit to Saudi Arabia by Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in mid-October when she met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

During Hasina’s four-day visit to Saudi Arabia, MBS pledged to invest in Bangladesh and called for stronger military cooperation. Salman also praised Bangladesh’s response to the Rohingya crisis.

Beaten into signing their own deportation orders

Many Rohingya refugees came to Saudi Arabia on passports obtained via fake documents from several South Asian countries - including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan - in a bid to flee persecution in Myanmar. Most entered Saudi Arabia on Umrah pilgrimage visas several years ago.

But after being caught up in a series of Saudi immigration raids, the Rohingya were subsequently taken to the Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah, where they confessed to coming to the country on fake passports.

Members of the persecuted minority described fear and panic inside Shumaisi, as Saudi immigration police prepared to forcibly remove the Rohingya detainees to Bangladesh.

Rohingya threatened with deportation to Bangladesh have Burmese documents proving their identity (Supplied)
Several Rohingya detainees told Middle East Eye they were "punched" in the chest by Saudi immigration police and forced to sign documents declaring they had "full mental health" to consent to be sent to Bangladesh.

"The forms were already completed by the [Bangladeshi] embassy and Saudi immigration police," one detainee, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE.

"They just needed our fingerprint and punched me in the chest to get it. We don't want to go to Bangladesh and live in the refugee camps. What future do we have there?"

Documents leaked to MEE confirmed testimony from detainees that forms from the Saudi Interior Ministry demanded a confirmation on the refugees’ "full mental health" before their deportation to Bangladesh.

The Saudis then handed these forms - with the Rohingya’s fingerprint and photo - to local Bangladeshi diplomats based in Saudi Arabia, who then gave the Rohingya Bangladeshis travel documents, according to the detainees in Shumaisi and documents presented to MEE.

The Bangladeshi travel documents are left blank with only a mugshot of the detainee attached at the bottom and signed later by Bangladesh's diplomats tasked with processing the deportation.

Documents that Rohingya were forced to sign against their will according to detainees and activists (Supplied)
Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and the foreign minister did not respond to requests for comment. The Saudi embassy in the UK was also approached for comment but did not respond. 

The anonymous detainee stopped speaking to MEE following several days of communication. Fellow inmates fear he has already been deported to Bangladesh.

Other detainees also told MEE that Saudi immigration police had been processing five to ten people daily in preparation for their deportation since mid-October.

Mobile phones that were previously allowed inside the detention centre had also begun to be confiscated by the Saudi immigration police inside Shumaisi. The phones had been used by Rohingya detainees to communicate with each other across various holding cells in the Shumaisi detention centre, which houses 32,000 undocumented workers from across the world.

Rohingya activists and family member estimate that hundreds of Rohingya who had come on fake passports were detained indefinitely in the Shumaisi detention centre. MEE could not independently verify the exact number of Rohingya detainees.

‘What will we do?’

In October, Bangladeshi authorities said it planned to repatriate thousands of Rohingya refugees from its refugee camps to Myanmar. The UN has condemned the move as it fears the genocide against Rohingya inside Myanmar is ongoing.

Abdul Ghulam, who changed his name for security reasons, is another Rohingya detainee in the Shumaisi detention centre.

While Rohingya detainees face a health crisis in the detention centre, other detainees have voiced concern that their deportation to Bangladesh would lead to their eventual repatriation to Myanmar.

"Before we would always worry about our families [in the refugee camps in Bangladesh], but now we are worried about being taken to Bangladesh," said Ghulam.

"That's why we are very upset and living under even more tension. The situation is impacting our health. Eating the two pieces of bread they give us is too difficult to swallow because we have been here for so long in the hope of being freed.

“What will we do when we got to Bangladesh? We have no other choice but to kill ourselves."

Children and women are among the dozens of Rohingya detainees inside Shumaisi detention centre (Supplied)
Ghulam also told MEE that representatives from other countries had rejected the detained Rohingya’s pleas for help, on the grounds that they used fake documents to get their passports to gain passage to Saudi Arabia.

The only country to take the Rohingya after years of negotiations, however, was Bangladesh, according to activists.

Nay San Lwin, who advocates for Rohingya around the world, said that problems for Rohingya occurred after 2010 when the Saudis began using a fingerprint system to register tourists and migrants coming to Saudi Arabia.

“Before when they claimed that they were Rohingya, they got a special permit and stay permit via verification from local Rohingya groups who visited the detention centre,” Lwin recalls.

“The Saudi government should seek to work with Rohingya community groups to verify them, not deport them against their will. Most of them are educated and have grade ten education and speak the Burmese language.”

Saudis urged to halt deportations

Saudi Arabia has no official asylum or refugee policy and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognises refugees' rights to work, be given travel documents and have freedom of movement.

The Gulf kingdom is said to have the largest population of Rohingya Muslims outside of South Asia. In 1973, during the rule of King Faisal, and following an upsurge in communal violence inside Myanmar, the Gulf kingdom granted Rohingya asylum.

Saudi Arabia must immediately halt all forced deportations of Rohingya to Bangladesh and allow them to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia

- Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch

This continues to be official policy for Rohingya born in the kingdom to generations previously offered residency permits.

Rights groups condemned plans to deport scores of Rohingya to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia, urging the Saudi authorities to halt the deportations.

“Rohingya in Saudi detention are trapped between the spectre of remaining in jail indefinitely or deportation to a third country where they would be forced to live in very difficult conditions,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye.

“Saudi Arabia must immediately halt all forced deportations of Rohingya to Bangladesh and allow them to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia.”

Amina Zoubairi, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, told MEE that it was aware “of potential deportation of Rohingya from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

“We have approached Saudi authorities who have said that there is no deportation of Rohingya from the kingdom, and added that deportation plans target migrants from other nationalities who have entered the country irregularly and claim to be Rohingya in order to benefit from the Saudi authorities’ special treatment towards this group,” said Zoubairi.

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