Human Rights Watch says the UN has improperly collected, exchanged data on more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees with their host country, Bangladesh, who transferred it to Myanmar, their country of refuge, and demands an investigation.
Over the past three years, the UN refugee agency has registered hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh, enabling Dhaka to provide them with identification cards needed for basic assistance and services.
But according to a new HRW report, the refugees were usually unaware that the information they had provided would be used by the Bangladeshi government to provide details about it to neighboring Myanmar authorities for possible repatriation.
“The UN refugee agency’s practice of collecting data with the Rohingya in Bangladesh contradicted the agency’s policy of putting refugees at greater risk,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s director of crisis and conflict.
UNHCR denied this. Spokesman Andrei Mahecic told AFP that the refugee agency “has a clear policy to ensure that our data collection is protected when registering refugees around the world.”
Rohingya was not asked for “informed consent”
HRW, however, said that refugees often do not likely realize that the data collected, including photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, could be transferred to Myanmar.
The Said report says this is particularly troubling in the case of the approximately 880,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, many of whom have fled the 2017 crackdown in Myanmar, which UN investigators say is genocide.
The global human rights group interviewed 24 Rohingya refugees from September 2020 to March 2021 about their experience of registering at UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, as well as medical staff, witnesses or other participants in the registrations.
The UN agency claimed that its staff had asked Rohingya for permission to exchange their data to assess repatriation eligibility, explaining that the so-called Smart Card needed for assistance would be provided regardless of whether they agreed to share the information.
It said it had provided individual counseling to provide refugees with a “full understanding of the purpose of the exercise”.
But all but one of the 24 refugees told HRW that they had never been informed that the data would be used to gain access to aid.
They were given a receipt stating a box stating that they agreed to the transfer of data with Myanmar, but they were provided only in English, which only three of them could read.
“What quickly became clear to us was that the Rohingya we were talking to were not asked for informed consent,” Belkis Will, senior researcher at HRW, told AFP.
He called on UNHCR to “conduct an investigation to look closely at why decisions at that time were made as they were”.
Will acknowledged that it was “difficult to generalize due to the small sample size” of refugees with whom HRW spoke.
But he noted that Bangladesh had provided Myanmar with information on at least 830,000 Rohingya, almost every Rohingya refugee in the country.
“It is difficult to imagine that everyone would agree,” he said.
At the same time, Myanmar used the data to return about 42,000 Rohingya green lights.
These include 21 refugees interviewed by HRW, all of whom said they knew their information had only been leaked when they were informed they had confirmed their return to Myanmar.
Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya as a citizen, but has said it will welcome anyone who agrees to a bureaucratic status of full citizenship.
UNHCR stressed that any return to Myanmar “will be based on the individual voluntary choice of refugees”.
Will also stressed that Bangladesh has so far not forced anyone to return with the refugee.
“But they are on the lists. Now the Myanmar authorities know they are sitting in Bangladesh, so if the situation changes, that risk will be effectively addressed,” he said.