Updated at 5:38 p.m. ET on 2018-01-08
Bangladesh says it is unlikely that the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar will start in two weeks as scheduled, because the logistics are not in place.
A bilateral repatriation agreement inked Nov. 23 had called for the process to begin in 60 days – around Jan. 22 – but a joint working group tasked with working out the details has not held its first meeting.
“Repatriation is a complicated and huge task. This is not possible to do everything within a stipulated timeframe. So, I think it is unlikely that we can start the repatriation by Jan. 22,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, told BenarNews on Monday.
“We need more time.”
The delay was announced as Rohingya refugees continued to straggle across the border into Bangladesh and a Rohingya insurgent group said it had carried out an attack on Friday to retaliate for ongoing atrocities carried out by Myanmar’s military.
Several Rohingya refugees who spoke to BenarNews said they were unaware of the repatriation plans being hatched by governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh, and expressed reluctance to return to Myanmar where their safety was not guaranteed.
Jan. 15 meeting
The process of starting to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Rakhine state, where ongoing violence has been reported in recent days, will also hinge on the first official meeting of a joint working group (JWG) to coordinate the repatriation, Bangladeshi officials said.
The 30-member JWG will meet for the first time next week, according to an official with Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.
“The joint working group will meet on Jan. 15 in Myanmar,” Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury, a director general in-charge of the Southeast Asia desk at the ministry, told BenarNews, adding the meeting would be a step toward starting the repatriation process.
Since late August 2017, at least 650,000 Rohingya crossed into southeastern Bangladesh as they fled a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine that followed attacks against police and security posts carried out by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents. In total, about 1 million Rohingya are sheltering in Bangladesh, including refugees who escaped from earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine.
‘Big task ahead’
Myanmar officials said they have sent forms to Bangladesh that need to be completed in order for Myanmar to verify the residency in Rakhine of refugees who opt to return there.
The forms have been received in Bangladesh but not released to the press, and the procedure for completing them has not been announced.
“We have yet to start collecting the data Myanmar that seeks in the repatriation form. Filling forms of 100,000 people is a big task ahead,” said Kalam, the refugee commissioner, referring to the first batch of refugees that Bangladesh is targeting for repatration.
The commissioner said his department had formed a nine-member technical committee from different government departments to collect data about Rohingya refugees in the country.
“But many of the offices have yet to send the names of their representatives for the technical committee. We hope that, soon, we will get the names of the representatives from all departments and we can start collecting data by this week,” Kalam added.
In addition, he said, the immigration department has stored data of each refugee who had entered Bangladesh.
“But the data must be organized by family. This is because the repatriation approach is family-wise. You cannot leave a family member here and repatriate others. So, we need time to rearrange the data family-wise,” Kalam said.
Refugees unware of repatriation plan
Meanwhile, some Rohingya refugees appeared to be in the dark about the process that could soon begin to send members of their community back to Myanmar.
“We have not heard anything about repatriation of the Rohingya. I do not think that the Moghs would allow us in,” Abdu Jalil, 50, a refugee from Buthidaung township in Rakhine, told BenarNews on Monday, referring to members of Rakhine’s Buddhist majority.
“They have been torturing us for decades to obliterate us from Arakan [Rakhine]. They would not let us live, if we return there,” said Jalil, who now lives in the Nayapara refugee camp in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar district.
Lal Mia, an octogenarian who fled from his home village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, said he heard that Bangladesh and Myanmar had signed the repatriation deal.
“But I will not go back. They will not let us live in Arakan. I will pass the rest of my life here,” he told BenarNews.
Zahid Hossain Siddique, the administrative chief of Teknaf, said refugees continued to enter Bangladesh from Rakhine and some had reported that it was still unsafe there, saying violence was ongoing.
Meanwhile on Sunday, ARSA rebels claimed responsibility for a roadside ambush in Maungdaw that targeted a military vehicle and wounded seven people, including six soldiers, on Friday. The attack was the first since Sept. 10, 2017, when the rebels declared a one-month humanitarian ceasefire.
ARSA also accused the Myanmar military of not letting up in committing “heinous crimes” against Rohingya civilians, including raping and molesting women, burning down Rohingya villages and “starving the Rohingya population to death.”
“At this juncture, ARSA has [been] left with no option but to combat ‘Burmese state sponsored terrorism’ against the Rohingya population for the purpose of defending, salvaging and protecting the Rohingya community with its best capacities in line with the principles of self-defense under international law,” ARSA said in a statement posted on Twitter.
On Monday, Myanmar’s government said it would fight back in response to ARSA’s latest attack.
“We will respond to terrorists in the same manner,” Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. “The Myanmar government officially declared ARSA a terrorist group.”
“These attacks by ARSA are planned to stop the Myanmar government’s efforts to receive the refugees back and to help them resettle,” Zaw Htay added. “We can’t let our process for repatriating the refugees and working on their resettlement be destroyed. We will strongly respond to any organizations, including ARSA, that try to destroy our process.”