Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials have agreed to return hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar from refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh “preferably within two years” of beginning their repatriation, the two sides said Tuesday, without specifying when the process would begin.
Following its first round of meetings on Jan. 15-16 in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, a 30-member joint working group (JWG) led by Bangladesh’s foreign secretary Shahidul Haque and Myanmar’s permanent secretary Myint Thu finalized the text of an arrangement to facilitate the return of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, according to a statement by Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry.
“The Physical Arrangement stipulates that the repatriation would be completed preferably within 02 (two) years from the commencement of repatriation,” the statement said, without providing a starting date for the process.
Under the agreement, Bangladesh will repatriate the Rohingyas through five transit camps to two reception centers in Myanmar, which will “shelter the returnees in a temporary accommodation” and “expeditiously rebuild the houses” to resettle them.
In the meantime, Myanmar will “consider resettling the people staying at the zero line on a priority basis,” and reiterated its commitment to “stop outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh.”
The arrangement will also allow for the repatriation of orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence,” according to the statement, which Reuters news agency said referred to pregnancies that occurred as the result of rape, citing a Bangladesh foreign ministry official who declined to be identified.
Interviews with refugees suggest the rape of Rohingya women by Myanmar's security forces was widespread, although the military denies it was involved in any sexual assaults.
The first round of meetings came 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.
Start date unclear
Myint Kyaing, Myanmar’s permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population, told RFA’s Myanmar Service Tuesday that government staff were mostly in position to “begin the process of accepting refugees,” adding that “buildings and other necessary items are ready.”
He noted that the refugees include orphans, which he said Myanmar will accept “if their parents really lived in Rakhine state,” based on comparisons between his government’s data and “court documents from Bangladesh.”
Myanmar’s state media reported Monday that a 124-acre camp in Hla Po Khaung—the nation’s first repatriation facility—will hold around 30,000 people in 625 buildings, and that at least 100 buildings will be completed by the end of the month.
Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam told reporters Tuesday he could not give an exact start date for the repatriation, but said it should begin “by late January or early February.”
The 100,000 refugees targeted for the first wave of repatriation are among about 1 million Rohingyas 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 Rohingyas 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. Refugees have accused soldiers of committing random killings, rape, and arson in their villages.
Tuesday’s arrangement does not allow for the return of an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh to avoid communal violence and military operations prior to October 2016.
UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, underscored the importance of ensuring that the protection of refugees is guaranteed in Bangladesh and on return in Myanmar in a statement Tuesday, and said it was willing to assist in the process.
“In any refugee situation, UNHCR hopes that refugees will be able to return home when they themselves choose to,” the agency said.
“Before considering return to Myanmar, some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have informed UNHCR staff that they would need to see positive developments in relation to their legal status and citizenship, the security situation in Rakhine State, and their ability to enjoy basic rights back home.”
Rohingyas are not recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar and are ineligible for citizenship and accompanying rights under the country’s Citizenship Law. According to the government, Rohingyas must first obtain national verification cards before they can be granted a status according to the law, such as “guest citizens” or people who can apply for citizenship.
UNHCR called on both sides to ensure that refugees are “informed about the situation in their areas of origin and potential return and consulted on their wishes; that their safety is ensured throughout … and that the environment in the areas of return is conducive for safe and sustainable return.”
The agency urged Myanmar’s government to grant it “unhindered access” in Rakhine state, in order to assess the situation, provide support to those in need, and to help with rebuilding efforts.
Myanmar has strictly limited access by international agencies and media to the conflict zone in Rakhine.
Meanwhile, officials from government-aligned groups observing the situation in Rakhine state mostly addressed the concerns of the region’s majority Rakhine ethnic group when speaking with RFA about the refugee repatriation on Tuesday.
Al-Haj U Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar and a member of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, welcomed Tuesday’s agreement and Myanmar’s pledge to “return [refugees] to their homes and improve their living standards,” although he acknowledged that the process could be difficult.
“[The refugees] have endured trauma, and local ethnic groups also fear more problems with them—it is reasonable for both communities to have concerns,” he said.
He said that “many Muslims never left and instead built trust with local ethnic groups,” while it was unclear whether those who fled Myanmar did so because of “imagined fear or legitimate threats.”
He also questioned the role of NGOs in assisting with the repatriation, saying that “each side has organizations and individuals who both help and incite them.”
Aung Tun Thet, the chief coordinator of Myanmar’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), said the repatriation process will be handled with extreme scrutiny to address local fears.
“The authorities keep saying that the refugees will be sent to their old homes, but they will first be sent to a place where they are verified … and only then will we try to send them home—as much as possible,” he said.
“It is very important to check if there are any terrorists among the people who come back from Bangladesh. We have heard the concerns of local ethnic groups and we must consider them in the process.”
Reported by Thinn Thiri, Nay Rein Kyaw and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.