Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that the United Nations has collected and shared personal information of Rohingya refugees with their host country Bangladesh, which relayed it to Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation.
Calling for an investigation into the allegation, a new HRW report claimed that the refugees were generally not made aware that the data they were providing would also be used by the Bangladeshi government to submit details about them to authorities in neighbouring Myanmar.
"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," New York-based HRW said in a statement.
"The agency did not conduct a full data impact assessment, as its policies require, and in some cases failed to obtain refugees' informed consent to share their data with Myanmar."
HRW said it based its allegations on interviews with 24 Rohingya and 20 aid workers, analysts, local activists, journalists, and lawyers who observed or participated in the process by UNHCR and Bangladesh's government to register the refugees, BenarNews reported.
In a statement rebutting the criticism, UNHCR said it had clear policies in place to ensure data was kept safe when the agency registered refugees, and that it had expressly asked the Rohingya for consent to have the Bangladesh government share their data with Myanmar's administration.
"When UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh signed their Memorandum of Understanding on data sharing in January 2018, and organized their joint registration exercise of Rohingya refugees, specific measures were taken to mitigate potential risks," the UN agency said Tuesday.
"Each refugee family was informed of the purpose of the joint registration, which was primarily aimed at providing protection, documentation, and assistance to Rohingya refugees. All were asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance."
According to ReliefWeb, 852,701 refugees who crossed into Bangladesh since the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown in 2017 are registered under the Bangladesh government-UNHCR registration process. It began in January 2018 in the camps in southeastern Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, where most of the refugees live.
Rohingya data for repatriation
HRW said that in 2018, the Bangladesh government aimed to provide an identity card for refugees – called a "Smart Card" – that would allow them to obtain aid and services.
"The government also sought to gather personal data collected by UNHCR to submit to Myanmar for repatriation eligibility assessments. UNHCR said this would help protect the refugees' right of return."
UNHCR acknowledged that the process was used to establish Rohingya refugees' former residence in Myanmar and right to return, but that its officials had sought consent.
"For this purpose, refugees were separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the Government of Myanmar by the Government of Bangladesh," the UN agency said.
Rohingya refugee families who did not consent to share their data with the Myanmar administration were still registered and able to access the same services and entitlements, UNHCR said.
According to Human Rights Watch, it interviewed two dozen Rohingya refugees between September 2020 and March 2021 about their registration experience, and 23 of them said UNHCR did not mention sharing data with Myanmar, or linking it to assessments for repatriation eligibility.
Three said they were told after giving their data that it might be used for repatriation purposes.
UNHCR denied these allegations.
"UNHCR wishes to stress that any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees, if and when they feel conditions are right for them to do so," the agency said.
BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, reported in January 2018 that Rohingya refugees interested in returning to Myanmar would be asked to sign a document stating that their return was voluntary and pledging to abide by the "existing laws" of that country.
However, attempts to begin repatriation to Myanmar – in November 2018 and August 2019 – failed. In January this year, Bangladesh and Myanmar resumed China-brokered talks on Rohingya repatriation for the first time in a year.
In February, a military coup in Myanmar stalled any further progress on repatriation talks.
In a separate development, the UNHCR's office in Malaysia said Tuesday that it was sharing refugee population data with that country's government so that all refugees and asylum seekers could be vaccinated against Covid-19.
UNHCR's Malaysia officer further said it had not set any preconditions with the government for sharing that data, but advocated that refugees and asylum-seekers not be detained.
The refugee agency issued the statement in response to a news report that it had set conditions on sharing refugee data with the government.
Rights groups in Malaysia had earlier this year said there was a danger that unregistered refugees and asylum seekers would be detained when and if they went to a Covid-19 vaccination center.
But in February, a Malaysian minister had assured them that no arrests would happen if any refugees showed up to be vaccinated.
The government then reneged on its promise in late May, announcing it would arrest those who lacked valid papers in order to vaccinate them as part of measures to contain surging coronavirus cases in the country.