DHAKA: Bangladesh is set to begin Rohingya repatriation on Thursday, with both Dhaka and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) consulting with around 3,450 refugees who have been cleared to return by the Myanmar government.
“We have agreed to the repatriation of 3,450 people on Aug. 22,” said Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On July 30, Bangladesh presented a list of 25,000 Rohingyas to a visiting Myanmarese delegation led by Thu.
From this list, Myanmar verified 3,450 Rohingyas for the first stage of repatriation.
Bangladesh had previously produced another list of 30,000 refugees for verification. But only 8,000 were cleared by the Myanmarese authorities.
A similar repatriation attempt failed on Nov. 15 last year when the Rohigyas refused to return, citing the negative environment in Rakhine.
“We have taken all necessary preparations to start the repatriation process on Aug. 22. Two transit camps near the border are ready to be used in the process, but we are not yet sure whether we need to use them during this new attempt,” said Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.
Kalam, the most senior Bangladeshi official on the ground, said that they have improved the security measures at the refugee camps.
“Everything now depends on the decision of the Rohingyas and whether they will agree with the repatriation ideas. Our main concern is to motivate them,” Kalam added.
Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said that repatriation is one of the most important agendas for his government and Dhaka would encourage them to return to their homeland.
“If they don’t go back, they will be deprived of all rights, not just land rights. For their own interest, I think they should volunteer to go back to their homeland.
“Going back to their own homeland does not mean that we are asking them to forget about the issues of justice and accountability. The process to ensure justice and accountability has already begun and it will continue irrespective of their return,” Haque said.
Dhaka has asked UNHCR for assistance in confirming whether the refugees wish to return to Myanmar.
“UNHCR has begun sharing information across all the refugee settlements. Bangladesh, with UNHCR support, has also started to inform the 3,450 refugees that they have been cleared for return to their country by Myanmar,” Louise Donovan, UNHCR spokesperson at Cox’s Bazar told Arab News.
She added that, in line with standard practice in refugee returns, UNHCR’s role is to ascertain voluntariness and ensure that people have the information they need to make informed decisions.
“UNHCR will confidentially meet those who express an interest in returning in order to consult them on their intentions. Those who express a wish to return will be invited for a second interview to ensure the voluntariness of their decision. They will be asked to complete a voluntary repatriation form,” Donovan added.
UNHCR’s efforts have been hampered by their limited access to Rakhine.
“We will share information on some 70 villages where UNHCR and the UN Development Programme have conducted assessments,” she said.
However, according to UNHCR, refugees have received their “own sources of information regarding the situation back home.”
Syed Ullah, secretary of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, a Rohingya rights organization at Cox’s Bazar told Arab News: “Before any repatriation, the safety of our lives should be ensured. We need the guarantee of citizenship, freedom of movement and recognition as an ethnic minority.
“During last month’s discussion with Myint Thu, we all agreed to have further dialogue to resolve the unsettled rights issues of the Rohingyas. Without solving our burning problems, how can we move forward for repatriation?”
Bangladeshi experts welcomed the fresh attempts to conduct repatriations.
Humayun Kabir, former Ambassador to the US, said that there are many differences over the repatriation issue, but there is a need to find “common ground” convenient to both parties.
“It is definitely good news that the repatriation issue has return to the forefront of discussion again. We all welcome it.
“But to make the repatriation sustainable, we need to focus on some important issues: Where will Rohingyas stay after the repatriation? Will it be safe? Will they have all the rights like other Myanmar nationals? Both Banagladesh and Myanmar now need to answer these questions,” Kabir said.