The Joint Working Group held its second meeting in Dhaka on Thursday
The Myanmar government on Thursday restated its commitment to repatriating the hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas currently sheltering in refugee camps in Bangladesh, but offered nothing more concrete about when or how the process would begin.
The 15-member Myanmar delegation was led into the talks at the state guesthouse Meghna by the country’s foreign ministry permanent secretary, U Myint Thu, while the Bangladesh side was led by Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque.
Although both delegation heads described the second meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) created last November as “fruitful”, neither could provide any tangible sign of progress.
“We had a very fruitful meeting and we have discussed how we will commence the repatriation,” Myint Thu told reporters after the meeting. ”We have discussed openly about preparation for the repatriation and we will work on it jointly.”
Myint Thu said both sides would now hold more working-level meetings and begin setting up the mechanism to receive the Rohingyas, who have fled to Bangladesh to escape the latest wave of violent persecution by the Myanmar military, which began on August 25, 2017.
“We are here for that and we will accelerate the (verification) process,” he added.
Myanmar dismissed as premature a proposal made by Bangladesh to visit Rakhine state to see any progress made in preparing for the safe return of the Rohingyas.
Myint Thu said they needed to work to promote awareness about repatriation and mentioned that they would be providing information to Bangladesh regarding repatriation complexities.
The JWG, which is responsible for overseeing the repatriation of the refugees, held its first meeting on January 15.
During that meeting, both parties had agreed on the physical arrangements for bringing home the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals within two years of the beginning of the repatriation.
In mid-February, Bangladesh handed over a list of 8,032 refugees it deemed eligible for repatriation in the first phase. But Myanmar so far has managed to verify only around 1,000 of these Rohingyas.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque on Thursday declined to comment on the challenges in starting the repatriation process.
“We are not willing to talk about the issue now,” he told reporters during a short briefing after the JWG meeting.
“Such repatriation is always a complex and difficult matter, but we understand its necessity. We feel the process should begin as soon as possible and we are discussing the challenges before us.”
The foreign secretary added that both sides were trying to work together to make sure the repatriation process was expedited.
“We hope to overcome the problems. There is progress in our discussion (so) let’s hope for the best. We are hopeful.”
According to UNB, he also said that Bangladesh would be handing over a new list of refugees eligible for repatriation “soon”.
Meanwhile, a senior official from the Bangladesh side said there was “no hurry” to place the second list as Myanmar was yet to verify all the names on the list already supplied. “I do not know how much time they will take to complete verifying the first list,” he said.
The official said they had raised all repatriation-related issues during the meeting, but Myanmar officials did not give any satisfactory reply on many of them.
According to a Foreign Ministry media statement, Bangladesh emphasized the importance of creating a “conducive environment” in Rakhine, ensuring safety and security of the returnees, rebuilding of villages, access to livelihood, and freedom of movement.
Both sides, it said, exchanged information on preparation for the repatriation and implementation of bilateral agreements signed between the two countries.
The JWG also discussed relevant details as to the involvement of UNHCR and UNDP in the repatriation process. Myanmar is in the process of reaching an agreement with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Thursday’s meeting additionally discussed the issue of National Verification Card (NVC), on which the Bangladesh side sought clarification over whether the returnees would be able to use it to pursue jobs in Rakhine.
The Myanmar side gave assurances in this regard, and said the NVC cards will be issued to the Rohingyas immediately upon their return.
The Bangladesh side also urged Myanmar to provide “verifiable, concrete information” which could be shared with the refugees in Bangladesh to help build their confidence to go back to their homeland.