The return of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar has been postponed so that a “systematic repatriation” can be conducted, a Myanmar government official said Monday, four days after an initial group of Rohingya verified as eligible for return did not show up at the border for processing when they were expected.
“We want to work on this repatriation systematically according to the memorandum of understanding [MoU] with Bangladesh,” Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement who is in charge of the repatriation program, told RFA’s Myanmar Service in response to a question asked during an event in Naypyidaw marking Universal Children’s Day.
“The Myanmar government wants the dignified and safe repatriation [of the refugees], and the postponement of the repatriation to the end of December by Bangladesh means that there is still work to be done to have a systematic repatriation,” he said.
Myanmar signed an MoU with Bangladesh a year ago to take back some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled a violent military crackdown in Rakhine state that began in August 2017 in response to deadly attacks by a Rohingya militant group.
The campaign prompted an exodus of more than 720,000 Rohingya as security forces killed families, sexually assaulted women and girls, and burned villages in what the United Nations, human rights groups, and other members of the international community have said amounted to ethnic cleansing or genocide.
The first group of 2,200 refugees was set to return on Nov. 15, but none of them showed up for processing amid protests by Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh who said they would not go back unless the Myanmar government met their demands to be treated as equal citizens in Myanmar.
According to the MoU and to another agreement that Myanmar signed with the U.N.’s refugee (UNHCR) and development (UNDP) agencies, the country can only accept refugees who want to return voluntarily. The Rohingya refugees are also demanding that Myanmar grant them certain rights and access to basic services to which they are denied.
The UNHCR and rights groups have warned that repatriations should not begin until the safety of returning Rohingya can be guaranteed and Myanmar can assure that they will not be subject to persecution and systematic discrimination.
“As we have to work on this procedure, it is very important to consider whether these refugees really want to return or not,” said Win Myat Aye, who is also vice chairman of Myanmar’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD). “Bangladesh, the UNHCR, and UNDP will work on the repatriation on this basis.”
Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali said his county will resume the repatriation process at the end of December after a general election.
“According to the MoU, Myanmar can receive the refugees only if Bangladesh sends them back,” Win Myat Aye said. “When it resumes the refugee repatriation, we want a systematic process like we have arranged in Myanmar.”
The terms of the agreement specify that the Myanmar government cannot force the repatriation of refugees who don’t wish to return, he added.
Boat people return home
Win Myat Aye also said that more than 100 Rohingya rescued on Friday from a boat stranded in the Andaman Sea as they attempted to travel from Myanmar to Malaysia are being sent back to their places of residence in Rakhine state.
Sixty-six of the 106 Rohingya detained by police following their rescue at sea are from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Sittwe township, while the rest are from 40 villages around the township, he said.
The refugees, who were found adrift off Kyauktan township in Yangon region after their vessel’s engine failed, said they left Myanmar because they didn’t have enough food rations in the camps and they needed jobs.
When asked about the lack of food in the camps, Win Myat Aye said that his ministry provides support to the Rakhine state government which is responsible for the management of IDP camps in Sittwe.
“International NGOs still support the Sittwe camps as well, but more may be needed,” he said. “We are working on this issue with other organizations as well.”
On Sunday, Myanmar police shot and injured four Rohingya at the Ah Nauk Ye IDP camp, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of the capital Sittwe, after detaining two men accused of smuggling the 106 Rohingya out of the country in their boat, Reuters reported.
Relevant organizations have been investigating whether or not they were illegally trafficked, Win Myat Aye said, though he had no details about the probe.
“As the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, we are working on supporting them in their resettlement,” he said.
IDP camps in Sittwe and other areas of Rakhine house tens of thousands of Rohingya displaced by communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.
The Myanmar government is in the process of shutting down the camps in keeping with one of the recommendations of an advisory commission that probed ways to end violence in the ethnically and religiously divided state.
Hindus want to return
Meanwhile, nearly 440 Hindus who were not on the first list of refugees to be repatriated told officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting the Bangladeshi camps in October that they still want to return to Rakhine state.
During a visit to the Kutupalong camp, Myint Thu, the ministry's permanent secretary, pledged that he would try to have the Hindus returned as soon as possible, said Maungdaw district administrator Soe Aung.
RFA tried to contact some of the Hindus in the camps for an update, but they refused to answer questions, citing security concerns.
Ni Maul, a Hindu social worker and community leader in Maungdaw who has regular contact with the Hindu refugees, told RFA that the Hindu refugees want to return to Rakhine state so they can die where they were born.
“They thank Bangladesh for helping and feeding them in the camp, but they want to come back home because they want to die where they were born,” he said. “It is our religious belief.”
Myanmar officials initially sent the Bangladeshi government a list of 1,222 people, including roughly 440 Hindus, in March to receive as the first group of returnees, said Chan Aye, director general of Myanmar's Consular and Legal Affairs Department.
But afterwards, Bangladeshi officials sent back a list with more than 8,000 refugees to be considered for repatriation, he said.
“Hindus from the Bangladesh camps contacted and told us that they want to return, said Soe Han, director general of the ASEAN Affairs Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We requested that Bangladesh put them on the list of first group to be repatriated.”
“But Bangladesh replied that it didn’t want to send Hindus back first and that it would try to put them on the list after the first group had been sent,” he said. “I hope they will be on the list after the first group of 2,260 refugees is sent back.”
Hindus residing in northern Rakhine suffered violence at the hands of Muslim militants who invaded their villages and drove out or killed them following deadly attacks on police outposts that sparked the 2017 crackdown on Rohingya communities.
The militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves. They also forced the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, Buddhist monks and ethnic Rakhine groups are planning a protest in Sittwe on Nov. 25 to oppose the resettlement of Rohingya refugees in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, a predominantly Rohingya area prior to the crackdown.
Event organizers said they will also protest against plans to appoint Muslim youths as assistant teachers and against the issuance of National Verification Cards to Muslims in Ramree township. The cards are seen as a first step to applying for citizenship, which the Rohingya have long been denied since they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Protest leaders said they filed an application for permission to hold the protest at a police station on Monday.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Min Thein Aung, and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.