Rohingya refugees interested in returning to Myanmar will be asked to sign a document stating that their return is voluntary and pledging to abide by the “existing laws” of that country, according to a copy of the repatriation form obtained by BenarNews in Bangladesh.
The form requires each head of family to supply a Myanmar address for his father, mother and spouse, as well as a family photo and thumb prints for all family members over the age of 5.
“I apply to return and live in Myanmar voluntarily without any threat or encouragement. If permission is granted to me to enter Myanmar, I will abide by the existing laws of Myanmar,” it says right above the signature line.
Details of the form, which is printed in English only, emerged as a top official acknowledged that repatriation had yet to begin, despite a Jan. 22 start date set in bilateral negotiations two months ago.
“Repatriation is a complex issue. So, we cannot give you a fixed date when the repatriation will start,” Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told reporters in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh that borders Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The two nations had agreed to begin voluntary repatriation of close to 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled into Bangladesh over the last five months amid an alleged onslaught of arson, killings and rape in Rakhine that amounted to ethnic cleansing, according to U.N. officials.
Kalam said Bangladesh had yet to finish the first step – preparing a list of 100,000 refugees for verification by Myanmar authorities. Bangladesh officials had earlier admitted that repatriation would likely be delayed and, once begun, take up to two years.
Bangladesh’s decision to “postpone” Rohingya repatriation had given the refugees “temporary relief,” global rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a statement Monday.
“While it is positive that Bangladesh has acknowledged the need for further preparations and delayed the repatriation process, there would need to be a wholesale reform of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya before any returns could truly be considered safe or voluntary,” said Charmain Mohamed, Amnesty’s head of refugee and migrant’s rights.
According to a 1982 citizenship act, the Rohingya Muslims are not citizens of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where they have been living for centuries.
“We have heard that Bangladesh has signed a deal with Burma to send us back. We want to go back, but they must return our citizenship,” Lal Mohammad, 65, a refugee at the Kutupalong camp, told BenarNews.
On Friday, hundreds of Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong staged protests over the planned repatriation and banners appeared in several camps listing pre-conditions for returning to Myanmar including citizenship, education and freedom of movement.
UNHCR ‘in negotiation’ with Bangladesh
The two countries agreed to revise the repatriation form during a meeting in Naypyidaw earlier this month, at which they hammered out repatriation logistics, according to Kalam, the refugee commissioner.
“This form contains a new section stating that they will abide by the existing laws of Myanmar and they are returning voluntarily without encouragement or coercion,” Kalam told BenarNews.
“This declaration is important for us, too. This declaration testifies that we are not sending them by force,” he said.
Kalam said the repatriation form would be administered only for refugees verified as residents by Myanmar’s government who want to go back.
“We will then employ people to fill the verification form for the interested people. The filled verification forms will be given to the Myanmar authorities for second verification. Then the returnees will leave on a stipulated date through designated entry points,” Kalam said.
Kalam said the government might sign a deal with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to fill the forms.
A UNHCR spokesman in Cox’s Bazar told BenarNews the agency had received an offer from the government to get involved in the process.
“We have been in negotiation with the government,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Speaking in Geneva on Monday, UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi said more time was needed to prepare for the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
“In order for the repatriation to be right, sustainable, actually viable, you need to really address a number of issues that for the time being we have heard nothing about, including the citizenship issue, the rights of the Rohingya in Rakhine state, meaning freedom of movement, access to services, to livelihoods,” Grandi told Reuters.
‘We are ready’
On Monday, Myanmar’s government said it had not received official word from Bangladesh that repatriation would be delayed.
“Although the Bangladesh government hasn’t contacted us regarding refugees’ return, we have to continue working on the agreement Bangladesh and Myanmar have reached,” Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
“We are ready for everything, such as the process of receiving and checking refugees, food, health care and security for them. Reception centers, temporary houses for them are also ready,” he claimed.
“The rumors that refugees don’t want to return home are not correct. The fact is that some of the Bangladesh officials have said they are not ready for the process to repatriate the refugees. They said they still need time to check the list of refugees and applications for refugees.”
Across the border, Kalam said Myanmar authorities had assured Bangladesh they would stop the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state before repatriation began.
“We get information that people are still coming in. It must stop,” he said.
A total of 688,000 refugees had arrived in Bangladesh between Aug. 25 and Jan. 21, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis in southeast Bangladesh.
“The increase in the number is not as a result of a significant influx, but due to strengthened assessments,” ISCG said in its latest situation update.