Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Tuesday to complete within two years the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who had fled an army crackdown last year in Myanmar.
The decision was taken at the first meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the return of the displaced Rohingyas from Rakhine State. The meeting in Naypyidaw was the first for a joint working group set up to hammer out the details of the November repatriation agreement.
Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque and Myamnar’s Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar U Myint Thu led their respective sides during the meeting.
Statements from both the Myanmar and Bangladesh Foreign Ministries read that Bangladesh would set up five transit camps on its side of the border. Those camps would send Rohingyas to two reception centers in Myanmar. The repatriation process would start next Tuesday, the statements said.
Myanmar said it would build a transit camp that can house 30,000 returnees.
The Bangladesh statement said: “Myanmar has reiterated its commitment to stop (the) outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh”.
Myanmar stressed the need for both sides to take preventive measures against possible Rohingya attacks and said it gave Dhaka a list with the names of 1,000 alleged militants.
The Physical Arrangement stipulates that the repatriation would be completed preferably within two years from the commencement of repatriation, reports UNB.
The UN Refugee Agency, responding to the plan, raised a concern about forcibly repatriating over 650,000 Rohingya who fled to neighboring Bangladesh after a conflict erupted in western Rakhine state in August.
The crisis erupted after Rohingya insurgent attacks on security posts on Aug. 25 in Rakhine triggered a fierce military response that the United Nations denounced as ethnic cleansing. Some 650,000 people fled the violence.
The military denies ethnic cleansing, saying its security forces had mounted legitimate counter-insurgency clearance operations.
The agreement is guided by the earlier understanding and principles signed “Arrangement on return of displaced person from Rakhine State” and the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the JWG.
Besides, the two countries also finalized the form for verification.
Modalities for repatriation of orphans and children born out of unwarranted incidence have been incorporated in the arrangement.
The Bangladesh statement called for repatriating orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence”, a reference to cases of rape resulting in pregnancy, said a Bangladesh foreign ministry official who declined to be identified.
Myanmar would shelter the returnees in a temporary accommodation at the Hla Pho Khung and expeditiously rebuild the houses for the returnees to move in there.
Myanmar would consider resettling the people staying at the zero line on a priority basis.
Both countries agreed to form two Technical Working Group, one on verification and the other on return.
The Physical Arrangement has included modalities of the relevant aspects of the return.
Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar Sufiur Rahman said: “We have signed a very positive treaty. After several discussions, Myanmar has agreed to complete the repatriation process preferably within two years from the day it commences.
“We have proposed to repatriate 15,000 Rohingyas every week but they [Myanmar] did not agree to it.”
He added: “They [Myanmar] have taken some preparations for the Rohingyas. They have agreed to take back 300 Rohingyas per day. Some 1,500 Rohingyas will be sent back in a week.”
The Bangladesh ambassador said the number of Rohingyas being repatriated to Myanmar every week will be increased after three months, reports the Bangla Tribune.
Sufiur said: “The repatriation will be based on considering the family as a unit and the form will contain the information of the entire family, which will make the process easier.”
He said: “Myanmar will take initiative to ensure that Rohingyas do not enter Bangladesh again and as a part of the imitative, they will take back 7,000 Rohingyas who are stuck in the border areas.
Regarding the list of Rohingyas, the ambassador said: “It will be handed over as soon as possible.”
UN concerned about the deal
A spokesperson from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday that the Rohingya people should only return voluntarily when they feel it is safe to do so.
“Major challenges have to be overcome,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a Geneva news briefing. “These include ensuring they are told about the situation in their areas of origin ... and are consulted on their wishes, that their safety is ensured.”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said last week the returnees could apply for citizenship “after they pass the verification process”.
Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, said this month Myanmar would begin processing at least 150 people a day through each of the two camps by January 23.
Left out of the talks were the fears and concerns of the refugees themselves, “as if they are an inert mass of people who will go where and when they are told,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters in an email.
“Where are considerations for protection of the Rohingya from Myanmar security forces who months ago were raping and killing them? How come the discussions ignore the deprivation of rights of people held in indefinite detention, which is what these so-called “temporary” accommodations may become?,” Robertson asked.
UK select body cautions against Rohingya return
The potential return of 100,000 Rohingya to Myanmar without a clear understanding of their legal status, interim and/or final destination, or even whether they have volunteered for the return trip, is a matter of grave concern, says the International Development Committee, a select body of the House of Commons in the UK.
In a report published on Monday, the Committee says plans to begin repatriation for the displaced Rohingya people from Bangladesh to Burma are well underway without evidence of consultation or involvement with the community.
However, MPs on the Committee agreed that the required conditions for the safe return of the Rohingya to Burma [UK recognizes Myanmar as Burma] must include their safety, security, and access to fundamental human rights.
Previous episodes of displacement and return of the Rohingya, and other ethnic minorities, in Burma over the last 20 years “do not inspire confidence,” says the report.
While recognising the challenges and ambitions behind each strand of the British government's “five-point plan” for the Rohingya and Burma, the report welcomes the concept.
However, the Committee says that returning the Rohingya to live in Burmese-run internment camps with the threat of future deprivation and violence is unacceptable.
Members were also critical of the UK's reluctance to commit its full specialist team on sexual violence to assist with reported cases of gender-based violence.