Bangladesh and Myanmar formed a joint working group (JWG) on Tuesday to start repatriating Rohingya refugees by January 23 next year.
The UN migration agency estimated on Sunday that 655,000 Rohingyas had fled persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25, raising the total Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar to 867,000.
The JWG for their repatriation comprises 15 members from each country and was formed under the terms and conditions of the bilateral arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar signed on November 23.
Minister of Foreign Affairs AH Mahmood Ali told reporters on Tuesday that the countries had agreed on the formation of the group in a meeting held at State guesthouse Meghna in Dhaka.
Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque and his Myanmar counterpart Myint Thu signed the terms of references (ToR) and mandates.
M Shahidul Haque will lead the Bangladesh side in the JWG, which will also include representatives of Prime Minister’s Office, Disaster Management Ministry, Home Affairs Ministry, Armed Forces Division, Bangladesh Border Guards, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, National Security Intelligence, Department of Immigration and Passport and several other departments of the government.
The governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a bilateral instrument “Arrangement on return of displaced persons from Rakhine State” on behalf of the respective governments in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw to repatriate Rohingya refuges who have taken shelter in Bangladesh.
According to the agreement, a joint working group is to be established within three weeks of signing to oversee the repatriation process and the process has to commence within two months after the signing.
Also Read- Rohingya Repatriation Deal: What we know
Content of terms of references and mandates
In the signed ToR, the Rohingya refugees have been addressed as “displaced Myanmar residents.”
The JWG will work not only to repatriate the displaced Myanmarese minorities, but also in “resettling” them in Rakhine State and provide support to reintegrate them in the society.
A high Bangladesh government official, seeking anonymity, said under the ToR, the JWG have been armed with the authority of making any decision regarding Rohingya repatriation based on past experiences and current necessities.
The group will also prepare a draft “physical arrangement agreement” on Rohingya repatriation between the countries.
When asked about the tentative schedule of the above mentioned deal to be finalized, the official said his government believes it will be signed before January 23, the day the JWG fixed to start repatriation process.
Under the ToR, the JWG will have the authority to form sub-committee to provide it with technical support
The JWG will also conduct field trip for its members on both side of the borders to monitor and make recommendations for the respective governments.
One of the crucial elements under the ToR was if the members of the JWG disagree on different issues, they will have to refer it to their respective governments and the issues have to be resolved within three months
Another high Bangladesh government official, who was not authorized to speak with news media, said Bangladesh had experienced plenty of dilly-dally moves from the Myanmarese side regarding repatriation issue since 1997.
“That’s the reason why we emphasized on the three-month timeframe to resolve any issue,” said the official.
Both sides in the JWG also agreed on to include concerned UN agencies and international partner in every step of repatriation, resettlement and reintegration, sources in Tuesday’s meeting said.
The JWG will also use data provided by concerned UN agencies and submit progress to the respective government every three months.
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Representatives from both Bangladesh and Myanmar attended the meeting at State guesthouse Meghna on Tuesday, December 19, 2017 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune
JWG’s relationship with news media
Under the ToR, the JWG will provide credible and objective information regarding repatriation process to the news media.
It will also brief news media about those who have decided to return to their own soil.
The ToR also includes allowing news media to visit situations in both sides of the border before and after the repatriation process.
Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque and his Myanmar counterpart Myint Thu led the Bangladesh and Myanmar delegations respectively at the meeting, which started at 8:45am and ended at around 12:10pm. They will also lead their countries in the JWG.
Representatives from relevant ministries, including Home and Disaster Management, also attended the meeting.
Afterwards, Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali expressed his satisfaction over the progress of the talks and said the next step of the repatriation process will start soon.
Also Read- Myanmar plans to take back 300 Rohingyas per day
Under the instrument signed on November 23, only the Rohingyas who have fled to Bangladesh after October 2016, will be sent back.
Rohingyas who have been living since before the October 2016 Rohingya crisis will be sent back later.
According to the terms, the repatriation will require proof of residency in Myanmar.
They will have to produce copies of documents issued in Myanmar which indicate they are residents of Myanmar. This extends to, but is not limited to, citizenship identity cards, national registration cards, temporary registration cards, business ownership documents, school attendance, etc.
Any refugee documentation issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) will also be subject to similar verification. The government of Myanmar gets the last say in any dispute.
Myanmar has also agreed to not prosecute or penalize any of the repatriated for illegal exodus and return, unless they are found to be specifically involved in terrorist or criminal activities.
And after the repatriation, both governments will not provide residency or citizenship to any illegal immigrants.
AH Mahmodd Ali on Tuesday noted the agreement is legally binding, but greatly depends on the sincerity of both governments to implement it successfully.
In preparation for Tuesday’s agreement, an inter-ministerial meeting was held at the foreign ministry on Sunday, where the formation of the joint working group and its structure were discussed.
An estimated 655,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh fleeing the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25, raising the total Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar to 867,000, said the UN migration agency on Sunday.
It said the new arrivals are living in spontaneous settlements increasing the need for humanitarian assistance, including shelter, food, clean water, and sanitation.
The article was first published on Bangla Tribune
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