Bangladesh will not repatriate Rohingya to Myanmar unless the U.N.’s refugee agency confirms they are willing to leave voluntarily, a Bangladeshi government official told BenarNews on Monday.
In late October, Dhaka and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reached a memorandum of understanding in which UNHCR was to gauge whether more than 2,000 Rohingya, whose names were on a repatriation list agreed to by Bangladesh and Myanmar, were ready to go back to Rakhine state, a Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said.
“Our policy is we will not send any Rohingya back by force. It is the decision of the individual Rohingya whether they want to get back,” Delwar Hossain, the ministry’s director general in charge of the Southeast Asia desk, told BenarNews.
The Bangladesh government is relying on UNHCR to make that determination, he said.
“According to our MoU with the UNHCR, the UNHCR will assess whether the returnees are going voluntarily,” Hossain added. “On Oct. 28, we handed over the list of the 2,260 Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government verified for repatriation, to ascertain their status, but we have yet to get any response from the UNHCR.”
Also on Monday, Lwin Oo, Myanmar’s ambassador to Bangladesh told reporters that the first 150 refugees from that list were to be sent back to Rakhine on Thursday. A similar number were to be returned daily through end of the month, Myanmar officials said.
“The repatriation will start on Nov. 15,” the ambassador said.
Meanwhile, a UNHCR spokesman said this was not the right time to send Rohingya back to Rakhine, from where more than 700,000 had fled to camps in southeastern Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape violent attacks by Myanmar police and border guards. The attacks began in retaliation for a Rohingya rebel attack on guards that month.
“Our position is clear we don’t believe that conditions are conducive for return at this moment,” Firas Al-Khateeb, a UNHCR spokesman in Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews in an email.
“Therefore at this stage, we can’t support any repatriation process, but we have been asked by the government of Bangladesh to assess the voluntariness of the refugees according to our MOU signed earlier this year,” he said.
“Therefore we will perform this assessment,” he said.
‘It is better you slaughter me here’
Meanwhile, some Rohingya whose names are on the list of 2,260 refugees slated for repatriation said they were not ready to pack up and leave the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
Nur Alam, 30, who lives at a refugee camp in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews he did not plan to return until Myanmar gave him and the other Rohingya citizenship status.
Myanmar officials have balked at granting Rohingya citizenship, offering them instead a national verification card that, officials say, is the first step for persons interested in obtaining citizenship.
“Three days ago, an official came and informed me that I was on the repatriation list. He told me to prepare to go back on Nov. 15,” Alam said without identifying the official.
“They need not build houses for us. We all will go if they [give us] our citizenship, ensure our safety and a guarantee to return to our original houses,” he said.
“The current situation is not favorable for return,” said Alam, adding, “It is better you slaughter me here than to send me there.”
He said he knew of at least nine Rohingya families on the list.
“All of them have been hiding in fear of repatriation,” Alam said.
Abul Kalam, a 28-year-old refugee sheltering at the Unchiprang camp, said he was on the list as well.
“An official came and wrote my name and names of my family members in a yellow card. Later, I came to know that I would be sent back … but I will not go now,” Kalam said.
US: ‘Premature returns’
Elsewhere on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had applauded the repatriation efforts while the United States called the move to begin sending back Rohingya to Rakhine, starting this week, premature.
“We have engaged both governments [Myanmar and Bangladesh] at the highest levels to express our serious concerns about premature returns, and to emphasize that, consistent with international practice, returns must be informed, voluntary, safe, dignified,” a State Department spokeswoman told the Journal.
And as leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepared to meet in Singapore for their regional summit starting on Tuesday, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was expected to raise the Rohingya crisis during those talks, an official with the foreign ministry in Jakarta said late last week.
“Indonesia, as family with Myanmar within ASEAN, expects there to be steps taken in resolving the humanitarian crisis. The involvement of ASEAN will be far better than that of other parties,” Benny Siahaan, the ministry’s director of ASEAN External Cooperation, said in a statement, according to Detik.com, and Indonesian language news website.