Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed Tuesday to establish a bilateral group to oversee the voluntary repatriation, starting next month, of as many as 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Rakhine state since October 2016.
Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque and his Myanmar counterpart, U Myint Thu, met in Dhaka, where they approved a joint working group (JWG) as required by an agreement signed last month to begin returning the refugees from camps and settlements in southeastern Bangladesh and resettling them in neighboring Rakhine.
“Today we have formed the joint working group to oversee the repatriation of the displaced Myanmar nationals,” Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury, the director general of the Southeast Asia desk at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, told BenarNews after the officials from both countries signed off on documents creating the JWG.
The 30-member group would consist of two delegations of 15 representatives from each country, and the foreign secretaries would lead their respective sides, Chowdhury said.
On Nov. 23 in Naypyidaw, the two governments agreed to begin the repatriation process by Jan. 23. It would affect about 700,000 Rohingya if they choose to return to Myanmar, including 655,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in the last four months, officials said.
The agreement covers refugees who escaped eruptions of violence in Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017. There is no end date for the repatriation.
However, Rohingya refugees who are sheltering in Bangladesh expressed displeasure over the agreement. They said they feared more violence targeting members of their minority group, if they opted to return to Myanmar.
“We will not go now. The military and Moghs (Buddhists) will torture us again,” Mohammad Alam, a refugee sheltering in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews in a phone interview.
Another refugee, who identified herself only as Nargis, expressed the same sentiment.
“They will confine us to shelter homes and annihilate us gradually. We will first observe whether they would grant us citizenship, then we will consider returning,” she told BenarNews.
JWG to visit Rakhine
Chowdhury, the Bangladeshi foreign ministry official, said the agreement required Bangladesh to prepare a list of refugees and hand it over to Myanmar.
“They will verify the placement of these people, and report back to the working group,” he said. “When they give clearance, we will send those verified people.”
The agreement also requires that the refugees, who are stateless because Myanmar has refused to recognize them as citizens, show proof of past residence in Myanmar.
Chowdhury said returnees would be taken to temporary shelter homes and then settled in their original homesteads.
Human rights organizations and refugees, however, have accused Myanmar military and security personnel of burning down Rohingya villages and neighborhoods as well as committing atrocities against Rohingya civilians, including killings and rapes, during a crackdown that followed attacks carried out on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents on Aug. 25. Myanmar government and military officials have denied the allegations.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified 40 new burned villages in Rakhine state, increasing the total to 354 Rohingya communities that were destroyed by violence since the military crackdown began in late August, Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews reported.
Dozens of buildings were torched the same week the repatriation agreement was signed in November.
“The Burmese army’s destruction of Rohingya villages within days of signing a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh shows that commitments to safe returns were just a public relations stunt,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said.
“The satellite imagery shows what the Burmese army denies: that Rohingya villages continue to be destroyed,” he said. “Burmese government pledges to ensure the safety of returning Rohingya cannot be taken seriously.”
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s government issued a statement on Tuesday saying the JWB would seek assistance from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with mandated U.N. agencies and other international organizations, during the repatriation process.
Mohammed Abu Asaker, a UNHCR spokesman, said his agency would work with the two governments.
“We are waiting for the proposal,” he told BenarNews.
Last month, when the bilateral deal was struck, UNHCR officials at the agency’s Geneva headquarters expressed grave concerns for the safety of Rohingya who would be repatriated to Rakhine under the agreement.
Their “return must be voluntary, and take place in safe and dignified conditions that pave the way for lasting solutions,” UNHCR said in a statement on Nov. 24.
“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.”
‘We will set ourselves on fire’
Also on Tuesday, Oxfam, the British-based NGO, said in a report that interviews with more than 200 Rohingya revealed that many refugees, especially women, were deeply traumatized by their experiences, including being raped and seeing loved ones killed. Some threatened to commit suicide if forced to return to Myanmar, according to Oxfam.
“Rohingya refugees interviewed by Oxfam in Bangladesh say they will not go back to Myanmar until their safety can be guaranteed and they have equal rights, including being able to work and travel freely,” the report said.
Refugees were unwilling to be repatriated without such guarantees, despite reporting feeling unsafe at night in overcrowded, makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Oxfam said.
“I want to go back to my home – when we are treated as citizens, when there is no violence, when women are not tortured and kidnapped, when at last we can be free,” Fatima Sultan told Oxfam. “If we are forced to go back we will set ourselves on fire.”
In related news, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that 21 Rohingya had died of diphtheria in Bangladeshi refugee camps.
The deaths were among the more than 1,500 cases of diphtheria reported since Nov. 10, according to WHO. The contagious disease, which can be controlled through vaccination, can cause breathing difficulties leading to death, if not treated.