UNHCR says it will continue to support the voluntary and sustainable repatriation of the refugees in safety and in dignity
Bangladesh is hopeful of starting the repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine state in Myanmar from Thursday, as per a decision taken by the Joint Working Group (JWG) at a meeting held in Dhaka on October 30.
This process is set to continue until November 30, with 150 refugees returning home each day, according to government officials.
“We are hopeful about the repatriation; let’s see what happens,” Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque told reporters after attending a workshop on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at a Dhaka hotel on Tuesday, reports BSS.
He said both Bangladesh and Myanmar were on schedule to kick off the repatriation process, which would see the return of 2,200 Rohingyas verified by Myanmar in the first batch.
“We are informing the listed Rohingyas at the camps in Cox’s Bazar about their repatriation, but if they do not want to go, we cannot do anything,” Shahidul said.
He also said that the repatriation procession could also be deferred from Thursday if deemed necessary. “I always say that repatriation is a lengthy process,” he said.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas have crossed into Bangladesh from Rakhine since August 2017, when Myanmar launched a brutal military crackdown which has been denounced by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Bangladesh, which had been sheltering another 400,000 Rohingyas prior to the fresh exodus, has demanded the UN and the international community put pressure on Myanmar to guarantee the safe and dignified return of the refugees.
A senior Bangladesh government official, who is working on the ground as part of the repatriation process, on Tuesday told UNB that Bangladesh was taking all the preparations in coordination with Myanmar to send the first batch of Rohingyas home on Thursday.
“But the ultimate success of the initiative still depended on the ‘voluntariness’ of the refugees’ decision to return,” the official said.
Another senior official said that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would assess the willingness of the Rohingyas to return to Rakhine, to make sure that no one was forced to leave.
Officials said the first batch’s return would be a test case to know how Myanmar was treating the Rohingyas, as Naypyidaw had assured their safety and security with confidence-building measures.
Dhaka and Naypyidaw have agreed to begin the repatriation on November 15, following the handing over to the Myanmar side of a list of 2,260 Rohingyas of 485 families.
Diplomatic sources said that within this figure, a total of 450 Hindus were willing to go back, of whom 66 had valid documents and do not need any further verification.
Bangladesh also handed over a new list of 22,432 Rohingyas to Myanmar during the last JWG meeting, although this is still to be be verified, an official said.
“Both sides wanted to complete the return of 2,260 Rohingyas first, given all of them were willing to go back,” the official said.
Bangladesh first handed over the list to Myanmar Ambassador in Dhaka U Lwin Oo on October 28, when the UNHCR was also informed to take preparations.
According to Myint Thu, the permanent secretary of Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country has so far verified about 5,000 Rohingyas.
UNHCR sceptical, but will continue support
In a recent statement, Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said that they supported the voluntary and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingyas in safety and in dignity to their places of origin or choice, and would work with all the parties towards this goal.
“Before making a choice of whether to return or not, the Rohingyas verified by Myanmar should be allowed to visit their places of origin in Rakhine, or other places to which they might choose to return, so that they themselves could decide whether they wanted to go back,” he said.
Grandi emphasized that the responsibility to improve those conditions rested with Myanmar.
“Although the UNHCR does not believe the current conditions in Rakhine state are conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh, the agency remains committed to supporting the government of Myanmar's efforts to create such conditions, under the terms of the tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).”
Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque earlier said that the Rohingyas needed to make their own decisions on returning to Myanmar.
"It is not Bangladesh's decision (and) it is not Myanmar's or the UNHCR's, either. The Rohingyas must decide whether they will return," he said.
“Bangladesh has welcomed the refugees and is doing what is necessary for them, but at some point they have to go back to their own country.”
India welcomes move
India welcomed the decision taken by Bangladesh and Myanmar to start the Rohingya repatriation process.
"We welcome the agreement which was reached between the foreign secretaries of Bangladesh and Myanmar," said the spokesperson of Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Raveesh Kumar.
An official involved in the repatriation process said Bangladesh and the international community needed to know the "ground reality" and the repatriation needed to be started.
Another diplomatic source said that some were trying to give an impression that Bangladesh had taken it as a "business venture" and Bangladesh does not want the repatriation of Rohingyas. "This is absolutely wrong," the source said.
Bangladesh Foreign Ministry and the UN agencies have said that they were coordinating their activities on the repatriation issue closely.
UNHCR also said it remained deeply grateful to the Bangladesh government as it continued to generously host the refugees until they could voluntarily return to Myanmar.
However, UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee has urged Bangladesh to shelve the repatriation plan.
“Myanmar has failed to provide guarantees that the Rohingyas will not suffer the same persecution and horrific violence all over again,” she said.