Around 150 Rohingyas were set to return to Myanmar under the repatriation deal on Thursday
In a dramatic turn of events, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) chief Md Abul Kalam on Wednesday evening told reporters that a decision on repatriating 150 Rohingyas to Myanmar would be made on Thursday morning.
Those 150 Rohingyas, from 30 families, were scheduled to be repatriated on Thursday.
“We have met with the Rohingya families that UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] listed for the repatriation,” Kalam told reporters. “We sent their opinion [on repatriation] in a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but have not heard from them yet.”
He said the RRRC had taken all necessary preparation to repatriate the 150 Rohingyas.
“I have come to know that the Myanmar authorities have also taken similar steps. But we have to wait till tomorrow [Thursday] for the final decision,” said the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.
“From our side, we have completed all the necessary preparations. Everything –, including their repatriation pack, transportation, and safety measures –, has been arranged. We are looking forward to carrying out the task along with all our partners here,” the commissioner said.
“We are hoping that we will be able to say precisely how many families will be returned by tomorrow morning,” said Kalam.
“We are still talking to the Rohingya. Our people are working to motivate them. We are hoping to be sure by tomorrow morning how many we can repatriate,” he said.
Responding to Dhaka Tribune’s query if the planned repatriation could be halted, Kalam did not explicitly rule out the possibility, saying simply “We want to remain hopeful.”
Earlier in the evening, a UNHCR delegation went to the RRRC office and held a meeting with the commissioner.
Earlier in the day, Kalam held a meeting with government officials about the repatriation, at RRRC’s Cox’s Bazar office.
Members of the army, police, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and officials from the Additional Divisional Commissioner’s Office and the Deputy Commissioner’s Office were present at the meeting.
Kalam also said that they had plans to repatriate the 30 families from Ghumdhum gorge in Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari Thursday afternoon. They are only waiting to get confirmation from the UNHCR authorities, and all other arrangements have been completed for the repatriation.
“We are hopeful about the repatriation; let’s see what happens,” Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque told reporters after attending a workshop on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at a Dhaka hotel on Tuesday, reports BSS.
He said that both Bangladesh and Myanmar were on schedule to kick off the repatriation process, which would see the return of 2,200 Rohingyas verified by Myanmar in the first batch.
“We are informing the listed Rohingyas at the camps in Cox’s Bazar about their repatriation, but if they do not want to go, we cannot do anything,” Shahidul said.
He also said that the repatriation process could also be deferred from Thursday if deemed necessary. “I always say that repatriation is a lengthy process.”
Fled for the hills
Paris-based international news agency AFP said, according to some Rohingya leaders, many of those slated to be repatriated have gone into hiding within the camps at Cox's Bazar, the border district hosting a small refugee city perched on hillsides.
As a result, it remained unclear how many people Bangladesh would be able to hand over. "About 99% of the families [on the list] have fled," community leader Nur Islam said.
"Everyone is tense, the situation is very bad," Abdur Rahim, another leader, said. "There are a lot of army and police inside the camps. They are checking the ID cards of Rohingyas.”
Local police official Abul Khayer, however, played down reports of additional security, saying nothing in terms of personnel had changed in recent months.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities to "immediately halt" their plans, saying it was a "reckless move which puts lives at risk.”
"These women, men and children would be sent back into the Myanmar military's grasp with no protection guarantees, to live alongside those who torched their homes and whose bullets they fled," Nicholas Bequelin from the rights group in a statement.
"Returns at this time cannot be safe or dignified and would constitute a violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under international law," Bequelin said.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas crossed into Bangladesh from Rakhine since August 2017, after Myanmar launched a brutal military crackdown that was denounced by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Bangladesh, which had been sheltering another 400,000 Rohingyas prior to the fresh exodus, has urged the UN and the international community to put pressure on Myanmar to guarantee the safe and dignified return of the refugees.
A senior Bangladesh government official, who is working on the ground as part of the repatriation process, on Tuesday had told UNB that Bangladesh was taking all the preparations in coordination with Myanmar to send the first batch of Rohingyas home on Thursday.
“But the ultimate success of the initiative still depended on the ‘voluntariness’ of the refugees’ decision to return,” the official said.
Another senior official said that UNHCR would assess the willingness of the Rohingyas to return to Rakhine, to make sure that no one was forced to leave.
Officials said the first batch’s return would be a test case to know how Myanmar was treating the Rohingyas, as Naypyidaw had assured their safety and security with confidence-building measures.
Earlier, Dhaka and Naypyidaw had agreed to begin the repatriation on November 15, following the handing over to the Myanmar side of a list of 2,260 Rohingyas from 485 families.
Diplomatic sources said that within this figure, a total of 450 Hindus were willing to go back, of whom 66 had valid documents and do not need any further verification.
Bangladesh also handed over a new list of 22,432 Rohingyas to Myanmar during the last Joint Working Group meeting, although this was yet to be verified, an official said.
“Both sides wanted to complete the return of 2,260 Rohingyas first, given all of them are willing to go back,” the official said.
Bangladesh first handed over the list to Myanmar Ambassador in Dhaka U Lwin Oo on October 28, when the UNHCR was also informed to take preparations.
According to Myint Thu, the permanent secretary of Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country has so far verified about 5,000 Rohingyas.