DHAKA: Efforts to repatriate almost a million Rohingya refugees to Myanmar have reached a stalemate due to the country’s reluctance to restart talks, according to officials in Bangladesh.
Hundreds of thousands from the Muslim minority group fled a military “clearance operation” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017, crossing over to Bangladesh in fear of their lives.
Bangladesh has been struggling with the strain the refugees have placed on the economy, with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating the crisis, but previous attempts to repatriate the Rohingya failed to attract takers.
“It seems that Myanmar is not interested in holding talks on repatriation issues,” Delwar Hossain, director general of the Myanmar wing at Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Arab News. “We write to them regularly to resume the talks. Sometimes they reply, sometimes they don’t. It’s becoming difficult to bring them to the discussion table.”
Myanmar said its Rakhine operation was in retaliation to attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents.
Its crackdown led to the mass migration of Rohingya, with horrifying tales of torture and persecution emerging in the days that followed which the UN later described as “genocidal intent.”
Some walked, while others swam across the Naf river to reach Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District (CBD) — the closest area bordering Rakhine — joining more than 200,000 Rohingya who had fled violence in previous years and were already housed there.
The CBD, known as the world’s largest refugee camp, stretches across 5,800 acres of land and is home to nearly a million Rohingya refugees who are desperately hoping to be resettled elsewhere.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal in Nov. 2017 for the phased repatriation of all Rohingya back to Rakhine — starting from Jan. 2018 — with the two countries forming a joint working group (JWG) a month later to take the process forward.
The two repatriation attempts, in Nov. 2018 and Aug. 2019, failed after none of the refugees wanted to return to Rakhine, fearing persecution and torture at the hands of the regime.
“Our demands were very specific,” Syed Ullah, former secretary general of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, told Arab News. “We wanted citizenship rights, freedom of movement and restatement in our original places. Once these issues are addressed properly, we want to return to our homeland without any delay.”
The group’s last meeting was held in Naypyitaw in May 2019.
Hossain said that, despite a letter sent to Myanmar two weeks ago, Bangladesh had yet to receive a response on a new date to restart the talks.
“The JWG meeting was scheduled to take place in Dhaka in February. Now, there is little chance to hold talks this year with the Myanmar government citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason,” he added.
Myanmar had asked to “screen” a list of Rohingya refugees as a precondition to talks before bringing them back to Rakhine, but Hossain said these were “excuses” to stall the process.
“It took around 30 months for Myanmar to verify the list of 30,000 refugees and they deducted around 40 percent names from that list, saying that they were not found in Myanmar government’s database. I don’t understand when and how we can start the repatriation process in such a scenario.”
As of July this year, the UNHCR and Bangladesh registered 860,494 Rohingya refugees at the CBD’s 34 camps.
The UNHCR suggested that Myanmar carry out a “more inclusive and transparent verification” of the Rohingya refugees and set up a tripartite process to bring Myanmar, Bangladesh and the UNHCR together and enhance coordination on repatriation.
“The UNHCR has made specific proposals to Myanmar that could help move things forward, which include resuming and enhancing dialogue between the Myanmar authorities and the Rohingya refugees as well as other measures that will help inspire trust among the refugees ... and comprehensively implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations,” Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, the UNHCR’s spokesman in Dhaka, told Arab News.
But the Rohingya said they would rather live in the 12 feet by 8 feet plastic and cloth makeshift tents until a sustainable solution was devised for their repatriation.
“It’s been three years since we were ousted from our homeland,” Mohammad Nur, a refugee in Kutupalang camp, told Arab News. “If we receive a guarantee regarding the citizenship issue, we will go back immediately. Otherwise, what can I do after repatriation?”
Another member of the Rohingya living in the same camp said that refugee life had hampered his children’s education and was an “irreparable” loss.
“It’s not our country,” Abdur Rahman, a 47-year-old father of four who is dependent on relief aid for survival, told Arab News. “How long can people survive with this refugee status? We want to return home with full rights and freedom of movement.”
Bangladeshi authorities said that while Dhaka was “doing everything in its capacity” to help the Rohingya, it was time the world focused more on “moral diplomacy” rather than “economic diplomacy” for a sustainable solution to the crisis.
“Asian giants like China, Japan and India, who are moving forward with huge investments in Myanmar, should play a more effective role to create a conducive environment in trouble-torn Rakhine for the repatriation,” Shomsher Mobin Chowdhury, former foreign secretary of Bangladesh, said. “Otherwise, it would be tough to find a solution to this crisis. Neighboring countries are focusing more on their own interests and bilateral relations with Myanmar and applying veto in the UN meetings regarding any stern decision against Myanmar which has prolonged the Rohingya crisis.”