Bangladesh and Myanmar said Friday they were working on the first repatriation of Rohingya refugees since members of the ethnic minority fled a massive military crackdown in Rakhine state two years ago, amid confusion over how the process would unfold.
“Myanmar has given clearance to about 3,450 people [to return from refugee camps in Bangladesh],” Mohammad Abul Kalam, chief of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, told BenarNews.
Kalam could not provide details on how and when the repatriation would be implemented. Previous attempts have failed because the refugees held protests and refused to be returned without safety guarantees from Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
In Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, government spokesman Zaw Htay told a news conference that the two neighboring nations had agreed to begin the process next Thursday. But he did not give specifics.
“If they are sending these 3,450 returnees back, we can accept them immediately,” he said, referring to Bangladesh.
Zaw Htay said his government had proposed resettling them as a group.
The Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate ethnic minority. It has denied the group citizenship, access to healthcare and other rights, despite the Rohingya community’s longtime roots in the country’s western region.
In Bangladesh, Kalam said the government had instructed officials in Cox’s Bazar district to locate those on the list in four refugee camps, according to the Associated Press, but he did not explain what would take place after the refugees had been identified.
More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims sought shelter in Bangladesh after they fled their villages in Rakhine in August 2017. More than a million are now living in squalid camps mostly in Cox’s Bazar.
The refugees had given U.N. investigators horrific accounts of rape, murder and burning of their homes as Rohingya escaped from Rakhine, when Myanmar’s troops orchestrated a counter-offensive in response to a militant attack on security forces.
Myanmar military officials have vehemently denied all claims of atrocities, saying their troops were defending themselves against the militants.
In November 2018, Myanmar and Bangladesh officials also approved the repatriation of 2,000 Rohingya but that effort failed because none were eager to return without guarantees of safety and citizenship. They were also wary of hostilities from non-Muslim residents in Rakhine, many of whom oppose the return of the Rohingya in their villages.
Analysis of satellite imagery revealed that there were no homes built for the Rohingya to return to in Rakhine state, but only large-scale camps and six new military bases, according to a report released last month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank based in Canberra.
“We’ve found no evidence of widespread preparation for Rohingya refugees to return to safe and dignified conditions,” the report said.
The latest attempt to repatriate the refugees took place more than two weeks after Myint Thu, Myanmar’s permanent secretary for foreign affairs, led a 10-member team that met with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to discuss the prospect of their returning voluntarily.
Myint Thu’s visit was the second interaction between Myanmar officials and refugees sheltering at the camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
Rohingya leaders ‘astonished’
On Friday, at least three Rohingya leaders expressed surprise after learning of plans to start the repatriation next week.
“We are astonished to know it from the news media. We are apprehensive that a new conspiracy was behind it ... They are playing tricks with us,” Rohingya leader Master Iliyas told BenarNews,
“We want the trial of Myanmar army men for atrocities and genocide,” he said. “We don’t want to be repatriated without confirmation of our citizenship, security and restoration of our lost houses and land properties.”
Myint Thu and his delegation met 35 Rohingya leaders on July 27 and 28 and assured the refugees that another dialogue would take place within two months.
“We know nothing about repatriation. Myanmar or Bangladesh did not inform us of anything,” Muhib Ullah, president of the Arakan Society for Peace and Human Rights (ASPHR), an organization composed of refugees, told BenarNews.
“We are astonished to learn about it from the news media,” he said.