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Citizenship still the stumbling block for Rohingya repatriation

Talks resume on behalf of thousands stranded in Bangladesh but Myanmar officials won’t offer any guarantees

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Citizenship still the stumbling block for Rohingya repatriation

Rohingya refugee children look out from their makeshift home at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on July 23. (Photo by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

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Fresh repatriation talks between Myanmar officials and Rohingya refugees have ended in stalemate, with citizenship still demanded by thousands of people sheltering in Bangladesh before they are willing to return home.

On July 27-28, a 12-member Myanmar delegation and five officials from ASEAN held talks with 35 Rohingya leaders in the southeastern coastal town of Cox’s Bazar to advance the stalled repatriation process.

During the two days of talks, the refugees’ representatives demanded the full rights of citizenship and a guarantee of their safe and dignified return to Rakhine State.

Myanmar officials would not offer immediate assurances but reportedly pledged to convey the refugees’ demands to the Naypyitaw government and return for further dialogue.

Ro Sawyeddollah, a Rohingya youth activist who met with the Myanmar delegation, said officials repeated their demand for refugees to accept national verification cards (NVC) instead of citizenship.

The cards don’t guarantee citizenship, merely invite holders to apply for citizenship at a later date, and Sawyeddollah said on Twitter: “We told the delegation that we would never accept the NVCs only.”

The late-July meetings were the second visit by Myanmar officials to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar … and their second failure to persuade refugees to return to Rakhine.

Aye Lwin, a Myanmar Muslim leader and former member of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission, said the barriers to citizenship needed to be removed if tens of thousands of refugees were to feel confident enough to go back.

He said the government’s NVC process was only intended for people without documents so those who do have documents don’t need to apply for it.

“The political willingness is the important thing for the repatriation of thousands of refugees,” Aye Lwin told ucanews.com.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer who lives at the Thetkaepyin IDP (internally displaced persons) camp near Sittwe, the capital city of Rakhine, is not optimistic about the Rohingya being repatriated as their demands for rights to citizenship, land and security remain unfulfilled.

He said NVC cards were only introduced in recent years and were not mentioned in the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

“We, Rohingya, have been living in the country with our own land and properties so why does the government ask us to apply for NVCs now, regarding us as foreigners,” Kyaw Hla Aung told ucanews.com.

John Quinley, a human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, confirmed that Rohingya who agreed to return to Rakhine would have to take part in a National Verification Card system which gave them no security.

“The NVC does not allow Rohingya to self-identity and is based on the problematic 1982 citizenship law,” he said on Twitter. “Many Rohingya reject the NVC altogether.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar had agreed that a group of more than 2,000 Rohingyas would go back to Rakhine State last November but that was postponed when many of the refugees refused to return out of fear for their safety.

In fact, Myanmar has made minimal preparations for the return of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled Rakhine State and have taken refuge in Bangladesh, according to a recent report by an Australian think-tank.

The controversial 1982 law states that only ethnic nationalities whose families entered the country before 1823 are entitled to Myanmar citizenship. The Rohingyas have thus been denied citizenship, accompanying rights and been marginalized in access to education and other government services.

Myanmar’s government regards the Rohingya as “Bengalis.” By not recognizing the term “Rohingya,” the government has implied that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite vast numbers of them having lived in Myanmar for decades.

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