Bangladesh and Myanmar high officials will meet today to discuss the repatriation of nearly a million Rohingya refugees from the makeshift camps of Cox’s Bazar to their homeland in the Rakhine state of Myanmar.
The talks will take place against a backdrop of mistrust and inaction, with both sides accusing each other of being unprepared for a repatriation process which was due to begin in January, but which has so far been limited to dialogue.
Today’s meeting of Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque and Myanmar’s permanent secretary of its ministry of foreign affairs, U Myint Thu, is being held under the Joint Working Group (JWG) formed to hammer out the details of a bilateral arrangement signed by the two countries last November.
At the first meeting of the JWG held in Naypyidaw on January 15, both parties agreed on the physical arrangements for returning the recently-displaced Rohingyas within the next two years.
As part of this agreement, Myanmar supplied Bangladesh with the names of 508 persons of Hindu faith and 750 persons of Muslim faith who have been verified as Myanmar residents, and should be included in the first batch of repatriation.
Following on from this, the Myanmar government claimed on April 14 that it had received the first Rohingya family (consisting of five members) at the Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine.
This, however, was revealed to have been a show of smoke and mirrors, after rights groups and the Bangladesh government found the family had been living in the no man’s land between the two countries, and had never even entered Bangladesh.
Such duplicity has led many observers to dismiss the stalled repatriation process as little more than a “paper tiger” - threatening of change, but ultimately ineffectual.
Dr CR Abrar, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, is among those who see no reason to feel optimistic under the present circumstances.
“I think one of the first things Bangladesh should ask, is what made Myanmar think the first batch of repatriation took place?” he said. “The family did not even cross the border, they were in the no man’s land.
Dr Abrar – who is also the executive director of the Refugee and Migratory Research Movements Unit – believes a change of approach from Bangladesh is now needed.
“When Myanmar has the audacity to hoodwink the world and say repatriation took place and Bangladesh is responsible for distorting the process, we cannot continue being quiet,” he said.
“It is time we put our foot down, negotiate as a strong party, and show the world we engaged Myanmar in good faith to bring about to end the crisis.
“We should seek clear answers and set conditions to Myanmar over the role of the international community, the UNHCR, and other authorities for a swift repatriation.”
Other experts are also urging Bangladesh to be proactive in dealing with Myanmar, while mounting pressure via the international community.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a total of 713,909 Rohingyas have fled persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine State since August 25 last year. The agency says this brings the total number of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh as of the end of April to 878,596.
The instrument signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar in November 2017 stipulates that their eventual repatriation will require proof of residency in Myanmar, such as citizenship identity cards, national registration cards, temporary registration cards, business ownership documents, or certificates of school attendance.
Any refugee documentation issued by the UNHCR will also be similarly verified - although Myanmar has the final say in any dispute.
For its part in the process, Bangladesh handed over a list of 8,032 refugees it deemed eligible for early repatriation to Myanmar in February. Three months and seven stages of scrutiny later, Myanmar had managed to verify only around 1,000 of these Rohingyas.
“Despite everything Bangladesh is doing, the output has been nil,” the former Bangladesh ambassador to the United States, Humayun Kabir, said.
“Myanmar is saying that it does not have sufficient resources to verify or expedite the repatriation (but) that is a time-delaying method. Bangladesh should offer to jointly verify to complete the process quickly.”
Dr Wakar Uddin, director general at Arakan Rohingya Union, a federation of 61 Rohingya organizations worldwide, also said the Myanmar government and military are just trying to buy time by delaying the process.
He said: “How does the Myanmar government want to verify people who fled their homes to save their lives, people who were shot and raped, and people whose homes were burnt? This is all just a game for them.”
Dr Uddin said it will be essential to guarantee the safety, security, and citizenship of the Rohingya people before the physical repatriation process begins in earnest.
“If the Rohingyas do not feel secure, they will flee to Bangladesh again,” he said. “(Therefore) the involvement of the international community is a must not only in the repatriation, but also during resettlement and rehabilitation processes.”
Humayun Kabir also said that after verification, much action will be required to build confidence among the Rohingya refugees.
“This includes, but is not limited to, creating an enabling environment for them so they feel their return would be safe, with their rights secured,” he said.