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UN migration agency accused of 'pressuring' Bangladeshi refugees to 'voluntarily' return

The migrants were rescued at sea in May [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 August, 2019

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The majority of the Bangladeshi migrant group rescued at sea in May has returned to Bangladesh from Tunisia, allegedly 'pressured' by the IOM.

The United Nations migration agency has been accused of pressuring Bangladeshi refugees to "voluntarily" return to their country.

A formal complaint was lodged against the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) this month by a Tunis-based NGO, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), The Guardian reported.

The complaint alleges that a group of 64 Bangladeshi refugees were pressured by IOM officials to sign a voluntary return paper or risk arrest.

The group was rescued at sea in late May by the Maridive 601, but were left stranded in the Mediterranean for another three weeks when European authorities refused to let them land.

They were ultimately taken in June to Tunisia, where they were housed by the Tunisian Red Crescent, according to FTDES.

The Bangladeshi migrants say IOM officials exerted "intense psychological pressure" on them to accept a "voluntary" return to Bangladesh, the FTDES complaint said.

According to the NGO, 53 of the group have since returned to Bangladesh with the IOM program and two have fled. 

One boy who escaped the detention centre to avoid returning to Bangladesh attempted to cross the Mediterranean again. His boat was intercepted and he is now reportedly in detention in Libya, according to The Guardian.

The remaining nine refugees have allegedly been threatened with expulsion from the Tunisian Red Crescent housing. 

"The testimonies of the migrants were consistent and all allude to forms of malpractice on the part of IOM," FTDES said in the complaint.

In addition to "psychological pressure" on the migrants during interviews with IOM officials, the refugees also said that the "psychological pressure increased" when they refused to sign the organisation's Assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) form. 

"The migrants attest that neither UNHCR or Unicef were present during these initial interviews, and they did not know that they had the right to claim asylum," FTDES added. "Moreover, no medical assistance that they had asked for was provided."

The IOM has denied that any pressure was put on the migrants to return to Bangladesh and says that all the documentation was explained to them in a language they understood.

The UN body also said that the refugees were informed of all the options available to them regarding seeking asylum and remaining in Tunisia.

The nine remaining Bangladeshis told The Guardian that the pressure had begun even while they were still on the Maridive 601.

"They told us the police here in Tunisia will arrest us and they don't know when we'll be released. The government in Bangladesh is not helping and neither are the Tunisians," one said.

Another described: "Every day they asked us what we had decided. They knew we didn't want to go back, but they kept asking us anyway. They told us to sign a paper in French, but I don't speak French. They told me to sign that paper and return to Bangladesh. But I didn't sign it."

All nine said the IOM did not provide translated documents and instead relied upon one of the men who spoke some English to translate.

"At the time I had no idea what a 'minor' was, what the 'UNHCR' was, or what 'asylum' was," he said.

The migrants insist their lives would be at risk if they return to Bangladesh.

Four of the refugees who decided to stay in Tunisia were eventually granted asylum seeker status by the UNHCR this week, according to FTDES.

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