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Rohingya repatriation Thursday: To be or not to be?

  • Published at 01:34 am August 21st, 2019
web-makeshift rohingya camp in cox’s Bazar
This photo taken recently shows a makeshift rohingya camp in cox’s Bazar Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

100 out of 3,540 Rohingyas appear for interviews; foreign minister blames Rohingya leaders and NGOs for discouraging them to return

Only around 100 out of the 3,540 Rohingya refugees enlisted for repatriation to Myanmar appeared for interviews at the Shalbagan refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar’s Teknaf upazila on Tuesday, according to camp officials. 

During the interview, 21 refugee families spoke with representatives from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), answering a series of questions about what they wanted regarding their repatriation to their homeland, Shalbagan camp-in-charge Mohammad Khaled Hossain told Dhaka Tribune. 

The interviews took place from 10am till 4pm. 

“We have initiated the process to interview the Rohingya refugees, approved by Myanmar for repatriation on August 22,” Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said. “Members of eight teams comprising UNHCR and RRRC representatives spoke with the Rohingyas and explained the repatriation process. 

“We went door to door to tell the Rohingyas that Myanmar had agreed to grant them citizenship, accepted all their demands and asked them to go back to their country,” the RRRC commissioner said. 

But it was difficult to convince the Rohingyas that it was safe to repatriate, Kalam said. 

“It has become rather difficult to explain to them [the refugees] that Myanmar has accepted all their demands.”

He said they would continue the effort to convince the Rohingyas for the repatriation. 

“Perhaps, at some point, the Rohingyas will move back to their own country of their own volition. Until then, they cannot be forced to go back,” he added. 

Bangladesh and Myanmar are trying to resume the repatriation in a small scale from tomorrow.

On July 29, Bangladesh handed a fresh list of 25,000 Rohingyas from around 6,000 families to Myanmar for verification before their repatriation to Rakhine.

With the latest list, Bangladesh has so far handed the names of around 55,000 Rohingyas to the Myanmar authorities, and around 8,000 of them have been verified.

If this batch finally agrees to go back to Myanmar, it will be the first group of Rohingya refugees returning to their homeland nearly a year after the first major attempt of repatriation failed.

Rohingyas still reluctant despite promises

Most of the Rohingya refugeeswho attended the interview said they did not want to go back to their country without the guarantee that they would have security, citizenship and a place where they would not be tortured and oppressed like before. 

Rahima Khatun, 40, one of the Rohingyas enlisted for the repatriation tomorrow, said: “The UNHCR members came to my camp in the morning, and said I had to go to the CIC office as my family was on the list [for repatriation]. But I told them I wouldn’t return to Myanmar, because the Myanmar government has not fulfilled all our demands.” 

Her daughter Mallika Begum, 20, said: “Our relatives in Myanmar told us not to go back, because the situation in Rakhine is not stable yet. So we asked the UNHCR to omit our names from the list.” 

Hamidur Rahman, 55, resident of the same camp, said: “Why would we return to Myanmar? Who will be responsible for our safety? Rakhine is not calm yet. Myanmar has not accepted our conditions and demands either.” 

He further said the Myanmar authorities had imprisoned Rohingyas in camps in Rakhine. 

“The [Myanmar] government should release those Rohingyas and provide them with citizenship and other facilities first. If they do that, we will move back to Rakhine – not before.”

Rohingya leaders, NGOs blamed for Rohingyas’ reluctance

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen has said both Bangladesh and Myanmar are “fully ready” to resume the repatriation of Rohingyas, but some Rohingya leaders and NGOs are reportedly discouraging them to return.

“We have heard that some Rohingya leaders have emerged there [in the camps]. They don’t want any Rohingyas to return[to their homeland]. Some INGOs and NGOs are instigating them [Rohingyas] as well,” he told reporters at his office yesterday, UNB reported.

He said Bangladesh wants to see Rohingyas return to Rakhine as soon as possible.

“We want the safe and secure return of the Rohingyas and free mobility in their own region. Myanmar has agreed on that,” Dr Momen said, adding that many Rohingyas were willing to go back.

The foreign minister mentioned that Rohingyas mainly want citizenship and they, as per their demand, would not go back until the were giventheir citizenship.

“Myanmar says it’s a process,” he said, adding that Rohingyas will get cards after their return, and then go through the process of getting citizenship.

Dr Momen said Myanmar had only cleared 3,450 Rohingyas for repatriation. “We want them to go back as soon as possible.”

He said peace in the region would be hampered if their stay became longer in Bangladesh. 

Responding to a question on China’s involvement in resolving the issue, the foreign minister said China was significantly involved and was helping Bangladesh convince Myanmar to take back their nationals.

The repatriation process at a glance

On August 25, 2017, Myanmar security forces, aided by local Buddhist mobs and people from different ethnic groups, launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingyas Muslimsin the northern side of Rakhine state, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to cross over to Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazar.

Since the beginning of the violent crackdown, which many including the UN have called “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” and a “crime against humanity,” more than 730,000 Rohingyas have taken refuge in the the Teknaf and Ukhiya upazilas of the coastal district.

According to the UN, the latest episode of Rohingya exodus has raised the number of Rohingya refugees living in the cramped refugee camps to 1,185,557, including more than 400,000 Rohingyas who have already been living in the camps, having fled previous persecutions. 

Hosting more than 1.1 million refugees has caused a number of socio-economic problems for the local community.

Under international pressure, Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in January 2018 to take back the Rohingyas.

Following a series of painstaking discussions between a proactive Bangladesh and an unwilling Myanmar, the two countries attempted to begin repatriation on November 15 last year, but the effort failed due to the unwillingness of the Rohingyas, and objections from the international community.

The refugees maintain that there is no guarantee yet that Myanmar will ensure their dignified return, and establish their identity as Myanmar nationals.

Since that failed attempt, there has been no development in the repatriation process.

On July 27 this year, a high-level government delegation from Myanmar visited Cox’s Bazar to directly interact with the Rohingyas – the first since the crisis began in 2017. 

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