Myanmar is gearing up to take back more than 2,260 Rohingya Muslim and Hindu refugees who fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in Rakhine state as its first group of returnees in mid-November under a bilateral repatriation deal made almost a year ago, a foreign ministry official said Tuesday.
Soe Han, director general of the ASEAN Affairs Department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said officials will process 300 returnees daily at the two reception centers in Taung Pho Letwe and Nga Khu Ya villages in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
“Myanmar and Bangladesh’s joint working group [on repatriations] held a meeting a few days ago and agreed to start the first repatriations in mid-November,” he said.
Refugees arriving by boat will be processed at the Nga Khu Ya center, while those returning by land routes will be processed at the Taung Pyo Letwe center, he said.
“The two reception centers are ready to accept them,” said Ye Htoo, deputy administrator of Maungdaw district. “We will hold them at the reception centers only overnight to fill out the necessary forms.”
The Myanmar government is working on accepting more refugees than the number stated in the agreement it signed with Bangladesh last Nov. 23, Soe Han said.
The second group of returnees will include 2,000 refugees, government officials said.
Those set to return were among the 720,000 Rohingya who fled the 2017 crackdown amid a campaign of violence by the Myanmar military that included indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and the burning of Rohingya communities.
Bangladesh originally sent Myanmar a list of names of 8,032 refugees, of whom Myanmar government officials verified about 6,000 as eligible to return.
The estimated 2,260 Rohingya refugees who will return in the first group are among the 6,000 verified refugees.
After the refugees are processed at the two centers, they will be sent to a transit camp in Hla Pho Khaung village for an unspecified amount of time before returning to their previous places of residence.
The transit camp’s 625 buildings, each with eight rooms, can house 30,000 people, Ye Htoo said.
The camp and both reception centers have health clinics, each with a group of 10 health care workers, said Than Tun Aung, deputy director general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Health.
“We have to work very carefully while the government is working on the resettlement process for refugees,” he said. “We will examine all of [them], vaccinate children, and provide health care to pregnant women.”
“We will also provide urgent care at clinics and have ambulances to transfer patients to Maungdaw Hospital,” he said.
Safety concerns remain
During a visit to Bangladesh at the beginning of November to discuss the repatriation program and to meet with Rohingya and Hindus from Myanmar who are living in refugee camps, Myint Thu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pledged to begin the returns by mid-month.
Rohingya living in the camps in southeastern Bangladesh have demanded that they be accepted as an official ethnic group and be given full citizenship rights before returning to northern Rakhine.
Human rights groups and the United Nations have warned that conditions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and have faced systematic discrimination for decades, are not ripe for their safe return.
More than 1,500 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists from Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung districts — the focal points of the 2017 crackdown — staged a street protest in Maungdaw on Nov. 4 against the resettlement of Rohingya refugees, the Hong Kong-based Union of Catholic Asian News reported.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, appealed to Bangladesh on Tuesday to stop plans to start repatriating Rohingya refugees, saying that the Myanmar government had failed to provide guarantees that they will not again be subjected to persecution and violence.
“I have not seen any evidence of the government of Myanmar taking concrete and visible measures to create an environment where the Rohingya can return to their place of origin and live there safely with their fundamental rights guaranteed,” Lee said in a statement issued by the U.N.’s human rights agency.
Lee has received credible information from refugees living in camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar that they are deeply distressed about their names appearing on a list of those to be repatriated.
Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner told Human Rights Watch last week that his country had selected the names of refugees on registration lists at random without consulting them to see if they wanted to return or have their personal details shared with Myanmar officials.
Hindus struggle to survive
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 Hindus displaced inside Myanmar by the Rakhine violence have accused the Myanmar government, the U.N., and domestic and international NGOs of neglecting them by failing to provide enough support for their survival.
The displaced Hindus have been living in temporary huts behind Maungdaw district’s administrative offices since fleeing their homes during the violence.
“We had some food provided by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement for only a month and a half at the beginning,” said displaced Hindu Maung Hla. “After that, it stopped helping us, and no one else helped us for almost four months. We are in trouble.”
A Hindu named Amina said the Rakhine state government gave them only 15 bamboo poles to build a hut, but they were not enough to construct adequate shelters.
“We had to find whatever we needed for our huts by ourselves,” she said.
Myint Khine said that Myanmar officials do not want Hindu refugees to depend only on the government’s help, but wants them to work for their survival.
But Hla Tun Kyaw, a lower house lawmaker from Maungdaw township, said the government should not ignore Hindu refugees who have been living together with local ethnic Rakhine Buddhists for a long time in the multiethnic state.
Hindu leaders said more than 290 families lost their homes in northern Rakhine state, though government officials have approved only 226 of them for new homes.
Myint Khine, administrator of Maungdaw township, said authorities will place all of them in 200 houses in the town’s Myoma East Quarter, Shwezar village, and Kyein Chaung village by the end of November.
The houses in Myoma East Quarter and Kyein Chaung village have been finished, while the structures in Shwezar village are only half-completed, he added.
Hindus residing in northern Rakhine suffered violence at the hands of Muslim militants who invaded their villages and drove out or killed them following deadly attacks on police outposts that sparked the 2017 crackdown on Rohingya communities.
The militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages in the Kha Maung Seik village tract in August 2017, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves. They also forced the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, the Hindus told reporters at the time.
International human rights groups have condemned the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for its attacks on Myanmar police outposts and Hindu villages, while pointing out that Myanmar security forces backed by ethnic Rakhine villagers committed widespread atrocities against Rohingya civilians that came in response to the ARSA attacks.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, produced this report.