RRRC hopeful of sending some families on Thursday, who have reportedly wished to go back to Myanmar
The authorities in Bangladesh responsible for the second attempt to peacefully repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar were playing it close to the chest on Wednesday, with the process set kick off officially on Thursday.
Representatives of both UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) kept mum all day on Wednesday, as the interviews of selected Rohingya families went on from the morning until afternoon for the second day.
Even after authorities told them that Myanmar is ready to accept them as its nationals, many of the Rohingyas interviewed on Wednesday told Dhaka Tribune they would not go back to their homeland until the government guaranteed meeting their five demands, including citizenship, they have long been making.
Naypyidaw recently handed over to Dhaka a list of 3,540 people from 1,037 Rohingya families they have cleared for repatriation in the first batch.
If the repatriation begins on Thursday, authorities here said they are set to send the Rohingyas back through Kerontoli Ghat broder point at Teknaf and Tambru border point at Ghumdhum in Bandarban’s Naikhongchhari.
From there, the refugees will be taken to a transit camp on Myanmar side.
Since Tuesday, UNHCR and RRRC officials interviewed the heads of 235 Rohingya families, who are on the list, at Camp No 26 in Shalbagan, Teknaf, RRRC Commissioner Md Abul Kalam told a media briefing at his Cox’s Bazar office on Wednesday evening.
“We again informed these Rohingya families that Myanmar government is ready to grant them citizenship and meet their demands.”
“Many of them have assured us [that they may go]. We didn’t force anyone to come to the interview. Every Rohingya individual who met us came on their own volition,” he said.
Earlier, the authorities had visited the homes of all 1,037 enlisted families at Shalbagan camp and notified them about the interview process.
Kalam told reporters: “The repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar might just begin from Thursday. We are ready. If everything goes our way, then the process will kick off between 10am and 4pm Thursday.”
“We are preparing a database with the information of the 235 families we have interviewed and their demands. This list will be ready tonight [Wednesday]. We will know more by morning.
“We have five buses and three trucks ready as transport. However, we will only repatriate those from this list who will board the vehicles voluntarily in the morning,” he added.
“Other Rohingyas will be brought under this process gradually. This is a continuous process and we will carry it on.”
UNHCR officials, however, declined to comment on the matter, saying they were only assisting RRRC to carry out the process and only RRRC would brief the media.
Majority Rohingyas still adamant
Over 1.1 million Rohingyas are living in a number of refugee camps at Teknaf and Ukhiya upazilas of Cox’s Bazar.
Over 700,000 of them crossed over the border and ended up at the coastal district fleeing brutal persecution carried out by Myanmar security forces, local Buddhist mobs and people from different ethnic groups since August 25, 2017.
During a visit to the Shalbagan camp on Wednesday, a number of Rohingya refugees enlisted for repatriation stressed that they would only go back if their demands are met by the Myanmar government first.
Many others also made the same remarks on Tuesday after meeting the UNHCR and RRRC officials.
Sources said that many enlisted Rohingya families have also been moving around camps to avoid being called for the interviews. They are apparently staying with their relatives for days, hiding away from the authorities.
Nur Mohammad of Buthidaung, Rakhine state, who crossed over in 2017 did not go to the camp-in-charge’s (CIC) office on Wednesday to meet the officials for his interview.
“Because I don’t want to go back. My three siblings and I have suffered enough. My mother was killed by the Myanmar security forces during the crackdown.”
“We may go, only if they give us back our red card [citizenship card] and meet the rest of our demands. They took those cards away from everyone before they attacked us. We will not go back until they give our red card back and guarantee justice,” said the youth in his mid-20s.
Md Saber echoed his remarks. The 28-year-old went for the interview on Wednesday, and said he made the same demands during the meeting. “They did not say anything else to that. And I came out of the CIC office.”
“My heart longs for my home. I had assets over there… My own land, my house. I don’t love living in a makeshift bamboo house here at the camp,” he said.
“I told the officials that I will only go if the Myanmar government meets our five demands. I will go right away. They won’t even have to manage transport for us.
“I suffered enough crossing the Naf River while coming to Bangladesh. I will swim my way into my homeland if they meet our demands,” Saber said.
Dhaka Tribune could not find any Rohingya refugees who said they believed what the authorities said about Myanmar granting them citizenship and would return on Thursday.
RRRC Commissioner Abul Kalam told reporters that security has already been ratcheted up between Teknaf’s Kerontoli Ghat broder point and Ghumdhum’s Tambru border point at Naikhongchhari.
Police, Rapid Action Battalion and other law enforcement agencies are alert to prevent any untoward incident, he said.
He added that an official from Myanmar embassy and two officials from the Chinese embassy were currently at Cox’s Bazar to monitor the repatriation process in coordination with the RRRC.
The repatriation process since 2018
Under immense international pressure, Myanmar had signed an agreement with Bangladesh in January 2018 to take back the Rohingyas.
Following a series of painstaking discussions between a proactive Bangladesh and an unwilling Myanmar, the two countries attempted to begin repatriation on November 15 last year, but the effort failed mainly due to the unwillingness of the Rohingyas, and objections from the international community on different grounds.
The refugees at the time had maintained that there was no guarantee that Myanmar will ensure their dignified return, and establish their identity as Myanmar nationals.
Since that failed attempt, there has been no development in the repatriation process – until now.
On July 27 this year, a high-level government delegation from Myanmar visited Cox’s Bazar to directly interact with the Rohingyas – the first since the crisis began in 2017.
After that, the second attempt to repatriate a new group of Rohingyas started seeing some light. But it is still unclear whether this one will be successful. At least, there is no concrete information yet which says it will be.