Myanmar, Bangladesh Pledge to Repatriate Rohingya Refugees ‘Within Two Years’

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
180116_BD-Myanmar_620.jpg Rohingya refugees stand outside their makeshift shelters at the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Jan. 16, 2018.

Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials said Tuesday they had agreed to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Rakhine state from refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh “preferably within two years.”

At the end of its first round of meetings in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, a 30-member joint working group (JWG) led by Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque and Myanmar Permanent Secretary Myint Thu finalized the text of a deal to facilitate the return of Rohingyas, according to a statement from the Bangladeshi foreign ministry.

“The Physical Arrangement stipulates that the repatriation would be completed preferably within 02 (two) years from the commencement of repatriation,” the statement said, without providing a start-date for the process.

Under the agreement, Bangladesh will repatriate the Rohingyas through five transit camps to two reception centers in Myanmar, which will “shelter the returnees in a temporary accommodation” and “expeditiously rebuild the houses” to resettle them.

In the meantime, Myanmar will “consider resettling the people staying at the zero line on a priority basis,” and reiterated its commitment to “stop outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh.”

The bilateral arrangement will also allow for the repatriation of orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence,” according to the statement. Reuters news agency said this referred to pregnancies that occurred as the result of rape, citing a Bangladesh foreign ministry official who declined to be identified.

Interviews with refugees suggested that rapes of Rohingya women by Myanmar’s security forces were widespread, although the military denied it was involved in any sexual assaults.

The first round of meetings, on Monday and Tuesday, came days before the scheduled Jan. 22 deadline for the first 100,000 refugees to start returning to their home state of Rakhine. Both countries have touted the process as a voluntary one, in which refugees could choose to stay in Bangladesh or go back to Rakhine.

Despite agreeing in November to begin the repatriation process later this month, the two countries have not established the necessary protocol for the first batch of refugees to return.

Start date unclear

Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam told reporters Tuesday he could not give an exact start date for the repatriation, but said it should begin “by late January or early February.”

The 100,000 refugees targeted for the first wave of repatriation are among about 1 million Rohingyas sheltering at cramped and squalid refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, who fled cycles of violence in neighboring Rakhine state.

These refugees include at least 655,000 Rohingyas who crossed into Bangladesh since late August 2017 amid a brutal military crackdown that followed attacks on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents. Refugees have accused soldiers of committing killings, rapes, and arson in their villages.

Tuesday’s arrangement does not allow for the return of an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh to avoid communal violence and military operations prior to October 2016.

However, Anup Kumar Chakma, a former Bangladeshi ambassador to Myanmar, cast doubt that two years would be long enough to repatriate the targeted number of refugees.

“According to the physical arrangement, Myanmar can receive at best 700 people each day. This means that around 20,000 people can return every month. So, I think, the two countries will extend the time frame of repatriation,” Chakma told BenarNews.

“The problem is not sending them back; the problem is their statelessness. We can repatriate them. But how long can they live in Rakhine if they are not given citizenship?” he said, adding that returning Rohingya could be exposed to the threat of further violence against them if they  ventured outside designated return areas in Rakhine.

He also warned that Bangladeshi officials might have some difficulty with using information provided by the Myanmar side and that verifies the residency of Rohingya who have been cleared to return to Rakhine.

“For instance, the spelling of Myanmar villages and localities is difficult for the Bangladesh side. The Bangladeshis cannot pronounce or write the spelling of the Myanmar villages. The whole process would face uncertainty if the names of the villages are not written properly,” he said.

Meanwhile, Myint Kyaing, Myanmar’s permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population, told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) – a sister entity of BenarNews – that government staff were mostly in position to “begin the process of accepting refugees,” adding that “buildings and other necessary items are ready.”

He noted that the refugees include orphans, which he said Myanmar will accept “if their parents really lived in Rakhine state,” based on comparisons between his government’s data and “court documents from Bangladesh.”

On Monday, Myanmar’s state media reported that a 124-acre camp in Hla Po Khaung – the nation’s first repatriation facility – would hold around 30,000 people in 625 buildings, and that at least 100 buildings would be completed by the end of the month.

UN concerns

On Tuesday in Geneva, the U.N.’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) underscored the importance of ensuring that the protection of refugees was guaranteed in Bangladesh and on return in Myanmar, and said it was willing to assist in the process.

“In any refugee situation, UNHCR hopes that refugees will be able to return home when they themselves choose to,” the agency said in a statement.

“Before considering return to Myanmar, some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have informed UNHCR staff that they would need to see positive developments in relation to their legal status and citizenship, the security situation in Rakhine State, and their ability to enjoy basic rights back home.”

Rohingyas are not recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar and are ineligible for citizenship and accompanying rights under the country’s Citizenship Law. According to the government, Rohingyas must first obtain national verification cards before they can be granted a status according to the law, such as “guest citizens” or people who can apply for citizenship.

UNHCR called on both sides to ensure that refugees were “informed about the situation in their areas of origin and potential return and consulted on their wishes; that their safety is ensured throughout … and that the environment in the areas of return is conducive for safe and sustainable return.”

The agency urged Myanmar’s government to grant it “unhindered access” in Rakhine state, in order to assess the situation, provide support to those in need, and to help with rebuilding efforts.

Myanmar has strictly limited access by international agencies and media to the conflict zone in Rakhine.

Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.


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