Updated at 6:40 p.m. ET on 2018-01-12
Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials are to meet next week in Naypyidaw to hash out logistics for repatriating thousands of Rohingya refugees sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh, but with no clear date for the process to begin.
The 30-member joint working group (JWG) is to hold its first round of meetings Monday and Tuesday in Myanmar’s capital, days before the Jan. 22 scheduled deadline for the first 100,000 refugees to start returning to their home state of Rakhine. Both countries have touted the process as a voluntary one, by which refugees could choose to stay in Bangladesh or go back to Rakhine.
Despite agreeing in November to begin the repatriation process later this month, the two countries have not established the necessary protocol for the first batch of refugees to return.
Bangladeshi officials said they planned to iron out some related questions at the meeting, including getting clarification from their Burmese counterparts about a sample repatriation form needed to expedite the process, and which they had received from Myanmar officials.
The form contained inconsistencies such as a requirement to list refugees’ “nationality,” Bangladeshi officials said.
“We have to discuss about this nationality issue: what is the nationality of the refugees? Is it Rohingya or something else? We will discuss the inconsistencies and prepare a commonly agreed-to repatriation form,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews.
“Collecting data about the returnees will begin after we get a mutually agreed repatriation form. We will deploy people to collect data to fill the form, if necessary,” said Kalam, who will be part of his country’s delegation to the JWG meeting.
Bangladesh’s immigration department has a database of biometric and other information about Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, according to Manjurul Kamrim Khan Chowdhury, director general in-charge of the Southeast Asian desk at the foreign ministry.
From that database, authorities are expected to send to a list of 100,000 names of Rohingya individuals and families, along with their residences in Rakhine, to the Myanmar government, he said.
“In the verification process, Myanmar will confirm whether the people mentioned in the list used to live in Myanmar. We will then ask the persons, verified by Myanmar, whether they are interested in returning to Rakhine,” Chowdhury told BenarNews.
“Our proposal is: at the next step we will fill repatriation forms containing the names and other information about the people who consented to go back,” he added. “But the Myanmar government may have a different approach. At the JWG meeting, we will discuss our proposal and work out the course of actions in the repatriation process.”
In addition, the JWG will discuss what role the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will have in the process, according to Chowdhury. The agreement signed in November by both countries called for including UNHCR in the repatriation effort.
The Nov. 23 agreement set a two-month deadline for expediting the process.
“I do not see any chance that repatriation will start before Jan. 22 according to the timeframe referred to in the repatriation arrangement,” Chowdhury said Friday.
“But this does not mean that the repatriation cannot start after Jan. 22. A complicated work like repatriation cannot always be done within a deadline,” Kalam said.
The 100,000 refugees targeted for the first wave of repatriation are among about 1 million Rohingya Muslims sheltering at cramped and squalid refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, who fled cycles of violence in neighboring Rakhine state.
These refugees include at least 655,000 Rohingya who crossed into Bangladesh since late August 2017 amid a brutal military crackdown that followed attacks on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents.
Next week’s meeting in Naypyidaw follows an announcement by Myanmar this week that housing for 5,000 returning Rohingya was ready and the government was waiting for Bangladesh to send lists of refugees who were eligible for repatriation.
To start, Myanmar will accept refugees at two reception centers in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages in northern Rakhine state, Myanmar officials said.
On the same day, Myanmar’s military issued a rare admission that some of its troops had killed what it called Muslim “terrorists” in September 2017 and buried their bodies in Maungdaw township, one of the hubs for violence in Rakhine state.
ARSA welcomed the "first time ever" admission on its Twitter account, saying the 10 slain Rohingya were innocent civilians, and demanding international investigators be allowed access to the area to investigate facts on the ground.