UPDATED at 3:11 P.M. EST on 2018-01-02
Myanmar officials in northern Rakhine state will repatriate Rohingya Muslims from Bangladesh only during daytime because of an extended dawn-to-dusk curfew in Maungdaw township, a government minister said Friday.
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in November to take back refugees from northern Rakhine state where a recent military crackdown forced 655,000 Rohingya to flee to safety across the border.
The operation is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 at two reception centers in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages.
Authorities will process repatriations only during daylight hours because of a curfew that has been extended in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, said Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement.
Returning refugees who are processed at the two reception centers must adhere to the curfew, he said.
The refugees who want to return also cannot go out after 6 p.m., but they can go out freely in the daytime,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Authorities did it [imposed the curfew] to ensure people’s safety.”
On Monday, local authorities extended the curfew in Maungdaw for two months to ensure security, stability, and rule of law in the area, state-run Myanmar News Agency reported. The order bans gatherings of more than five people and prohibits anyone from being outdoors between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Maungdaw, along with neighboring Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships, has been the focal point of two waves of violence against the Rohingya, which have included brutal killings, arson torture, and rape.
The Myanmar government ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew in northern Rakhine following deadly raids by a Muslim militant group on three border guard stations in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships on Oct. 9, 2016. Those who violated the order had to pay a 20,000-kyat (U.S. $15) fine.
Another curfew was imposed following deadly attacks by the same group on 30 police outposts and an army base in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25, 2017.
Repatriation forms sent
Meanwhile, the Myanmar government has already sent forms to Rohingya who wish to return voluntarily. The refugees must prove prior residency and show that they left Myanmar after Oct. 9, 2016.
“We are getting ready to accept refugees back on January 22, but we don’t know what day they will come back,” Win Myat Aye said.
“They must fill out the forms and send them back to us,” he said. “We will check the forms with the data and documents we have, though we haven’t received these forms from Bangladesh yet. As it is voluntary return, we are going to work on what the refugees want.”
Win Myat Aye also heads a government committee created in September to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
The commission’s report called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
Bangladeshi officials said on Friday that were sending the names of 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar so that the repatriations could begin on schedule, according to the agreement the two countries signed, Agence France-Presse reported.
Close to one million Rohingya refugees who fled violence during recent and previous waves of repression in Myanmar live in sprawling displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh and have overburdened the impoverished country’s resources.
Houses not yet built
Members of Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission met with Win Myat Aye on Thursday to share their observations on the situation in the Maungdaw area in the run-up to the start of the repatriation program
Commissioner Yu Lwin Aung told the minister that the conditions for the returning Rohingya refugees were not yet ripe.
“The construction of the two reception centers for refugees in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages had not been completed when we visited there on Dec. 12, 13, and 14,” Yu Lwin Aung told RFA.
“We suggested to the minister that the centers be completed as soon as possible,” he said “Win Myat Aye said the [work] has now been completed.”
Yu Lwin Aung also said that officials from relevant ministries have been appointed to process the returning refugees, even though new houses that the government is building for the returning refugees have yet to be completed.
“We know that government has said it will build houses for Muslims who lost their houses during the crisis, but this project hasn’t begun yet,” he said.
The commission suggested to Win Myat Aye that the government get the construction under way immediately and build homes for other ethnic minorities in northern Rakhine, such as the Mro and Kaman, who also lost their homes during the recent violence.
“The central government has ordered the regional government to build new villages or houses for these ethnic refugees, Yu Lwin Aung said. “We saw some have been begun, but some haven’t yet. We have also suggested that he [Win Myat Aye] implement this plan on time.”
In response, Win Myat Aye pointed out that various communities like different types of housing, with ethnic Rakhine people preferring homes on pillars and the Rohingya preferring structures made of mud.
The authorities don’t want the different groups to dislike what government builds for them, so they have a plan to give them land and provide building material so they can build their own homes, the minister told the commissioners.
While the new homes are being built, the government will provide Rohingya refugees with temporary tents, food, and funds to build homes, Win Myat Aye told them.
Rights groups and the United Nations have cautioned against a hasty return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, saying that they will continue to face repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.