Bangladesh and Myanmar officials on Tuesday announced a plan to start repatriating as many as 2,300 Rohingya refugees in a couple of weeks, nearly a year after the neighbors signed a deal stipulating that the process would begin in early 2018.
Tuesday’s bilateral agreement in Dhaka came less than a week after a top U.N. investigator warned that a genocide against the ethnic minority was still happening in Rakhine, the home state of the Rohingya minority group in Myanmar.
The nations’ foreign secretaries made the announcement at a joint press conference at the Meghna State Guest House, after the Bangladesh-Myanmar Joint Working Group (JWG) met for the third time.
On Wednesday the 30-member JWG, led by Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque and Myanmar counterpart Myint Thu, will visit refugee camps in Ukhia, a sub-district of southeastern Cox’s Bazar, to meet with potential returnees to encourage them to return to Rakhine.
“Today, we had a very fruitful constructive dialogue. We discussed the repatriation of the Rohingya staying here. … We are looking forward to start the repatriation by mid-November,” Haque told reporters.
Myint Thu shook his head in agreement with Haque.
“We had a very candid and friendly meeting this morning. We came up with concrete results on the commencement of the repatriation,” he said. “As my colleagues mentioned, we have shown political will, flexibility and accommodation in order to commence repatriation at the earliest possible days.”
Responding to a question from BenarNews, the Myanmar diplomat discussed efforts to ensure a safe return for the Rohingya.
“First of all we have streamlined a lot of local directives in order to promote awareness on the repatriation among the returnees,” he said. “We are also promoting public policing, which includes police personnel together with the local communities to maintain and promote law and order.
Addressing the issue of the safety of returning Rohingya, Myint Thu said that Myanmar was holding workshops to promote awareness among police and public officials “so that they cannot discriminate [against] the people in the northern Rakhine state.”
“We have put in place a number of measures to make sure that the returnees will have a secure environment for their return,” he added.
But returnees will not be returning to villages in Rakhine from which they were forced out during a violent crackdown last year by Myanmar security forces. They will be going to a so-called reception camp.
Md. Afzal, a Rohingya refugee leader in Bangladesh, cast doubt on Myanmar’s sincerity in repatriating his people to their homeland.
“Myanmar has been under international pressure. They would take some of us as eyewash,” he told BenarNews in a telephone interview. “They will not allow us going to our original villages. They will confine us to a newly built fortified compound.
“But we do not want to go back this way. We must be given the right to movement and restore our citizenship,” he said, adding that perpetrators of alleged atrocities against Rohingya must be tried in court before the refugees can return to Myanmar.
Last November, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement calling for the process to begin by Jan. 22, 2018. The agreement declared that the repatriation must be “voluntary, safe and dignified.”
But the repatriation stalled for months because Rohingya feared persecution if they were return to Rakhine. More than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown on Aug. 25, 2017 in retaliation for attacks blamed on Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents.
The agreement requires Bangladesh officials to present a list of Rohingya to Myanmar officials, who would then determine if they had lived in Rakhine. After verification by Myanmar, Bangladesh is to present lists of people willing to return.
On Feb. 26, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal handed over a first list containing names and Myanmar residences of 8,032 Rohingya to Myanmar counterpart Kyaw Swe for verification.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, the Bangladeshi refugee relief and repatriation commissioner who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said the Myanmar government had cleared 4,600 Rohingya on the original list.
“Upon return to Rakhine, if their safety is not ensured, if their livelihood opportunities are not guaranteed, if they are not granted the right to movement, they would flee again,” Kalam told BenarNews.
Home Ministry Joint Secretary Munim Hasan, who also attended the meeting, said Bangladesh presented the names of 2,260 Rohingya belonging to 485 families from the list of 4,600 cleared by Myanmar.
“Today, we have handed over the second list containing information of 22,400 Rohingya for verification by Myanmar,” Hasan told BenarNews.
UN: ‘Ongoing genocide’
Earlier this month, Marzuki Darusman, the Indonesian chairman of a U.N. fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said thousands of Rohingya continued to flee to Bangladesh and those who remained suffered severe repression.
“It is an ongoing genocide that is taking place at the moment,” he told a news conference on Oct. 24 at the United Nations in New York. “The Myanmar government’s hardened positions are by far the greatest obstacle,” Darusman told reporters.
Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador, Hau Do Suan, repeated denials that Myanmar had offered since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis.
“This fact‑finding mission’s report is unconstructive and full of prejudice. We don’t accept and condemn the calls for referring the Myanmar situation to the ICC (International Criminal Court) or an independent court,” he said.