By Prarthana Mitra
Days after Bangladesh announced it was ready to begin repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar in batches, the plan was stalled after warnings from the UN, and reluctance from the refugees themselves.
The first phase of their return to Myanmar was due to begin on Thursday, according to an agreement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar on November 23, 2017. Bangladesh reconsidered its position when the day arrived, stressing that it would not repatriate anyone against their will after refugees expressed their unwillingness to return to the hostile state so soon.
Earlier this month, Myanmar agreed to welcome back 2,000 of the almost million Rohingya Muslims currently stationed in Bangladeshi refugee camps by mid-November. A joint working committee from both countries recently met around 5,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh, as Aung Suu Kyi’s government faced intense criticism for the mass extrajudicial killings of the ethnic minority in 2017.
“We are completely ready for the repatriation to proceed as planned. So everything is set, our logistics and other facilities are in place,” the Bangladeshi relief and repatriation commissioner Abul Kalam told the media earlier this week. But the United Nations and the refugees raised their voice against the plan, citing that repatriation would violate international law and put the lives of the Rohingya Muslims at serious risk.
“We made all preparations. Everything was ready: the transit camp, buses to carry them to border, medical facilities, rations for three days for the returnees,” Kalam said to Reuters, but no one was willing to board the bus to return on Thursday.
“If Rohingya [people] don’t want to return what can we do? We will not send them forcefully,” said Kalam.
What was promised earlier
Earlier this year, the permanent secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs of Myanmar, Myint Thu, had said, “We will construct reception centers. The returnees will have to stay there for about two days; after receiving National Verification Card [NVC] you will be taken to model camps where you need stay for five to six months. After completion of this period you will be allowed to rehabilitate to your old land, besides this you will able to enjoy some facilities such as fishing, trading, moving, treatment and even your children can obtain education. We are ready to receive you.”
The committee of refugees Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) did not like the idea of an NVC instead of regular citizenship, and issued a letter to the government, with a list of seven demands, according to the Hindu.
According to a refugee who reportedly spoke to the visiting official from Myanmar’s ministry of foreign affairs, “The returnees have to spend three days in a transit camp inside Rakhine before they are taken to another camp which will be their new home.” He received a non-committal response on whether they would get their old village back.
Response from the United Nations
The UN also expressed concerns over not being consulted about the deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Conditions in Rakhine state are “not yet conducive” to the return of the refugees, the international organisation added. “We’re seeing Rohingya refugees continue to arrive from Rakhine state into [Bangladesh], which should give you an indication of the situation on the ground,” Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN secretary general, said to the press last month.
Earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet asked Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plans, saying that they would put people’s lives in jeopardy.
“We would advise against imposing any timetable or target figures for repatriation in respect of the voluntary nature and sustainability of return,” added Chris Melzer, the UNHCR’s senior external officer based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “It is unclear if refugees know their names are on this list that has been cleared by Myanmar. They need to be informed. They also need to be consulted if they are willing to return … It is critical that returns are not rushed or premature,” he reportedly said.
History of Rohingya crisis
The horrific massacres and extra-judicial killings of Muslim minorities in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar began on August 25 last year. Nearly 7,00,000 Rohingya Muslims are now displaced and living in refugee camps across Bangladesh, without a home, basic rights, or citizenship.
A UN fact-finding mission condemned Nobel Peace Prize awardee and State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung Suu Kyi for condoning one of the most violent military crackdowns in recent history, aimed at erasing an ethnic minority. The report was based on satellite imagery, photographs and videos, and “875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses.”
According to theIndependent, the UN report categorically stated, “Military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.” It also demanded punitive action against the army generals responsible for conducting the genocidal attacks on the minority community in Rakhine State.
The army had denied the claims of ethnic cleansing from the beginning and continue to maintain that they were responding to violent attacks by a Rohingya Muslim militant group.
The revival of repatriation talks arrives on the heels of a critical report submitted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September. The expedited repatriation could also stem from the political pressure on Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, as the nation goes to polls next month.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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