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Damnation or salvation in Rohingya repatriation?

Critics fear Myanmar's verification of status of 500,000 refugees will be muddied by red tape and lack of documentation

Damnation or salvation in Rohingya repatriation?

Rokeya Begum, 18, a Rohingya refugee who was paralyzed while giving birth, is carried by her brother and father on Shah Porir Dwip Island in the Cox's Bazar district on Sept. 29. (ucanews.com photo)

As the Myanmar government prepares for the verification of more than 500,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh, concerns are rising that many of the refugees might be left behind due to a lack of documentation and bureaucratic red tape.

Myanmar's state-run media has reported that the government will begin the verification processes at Taungpyo Letyar village in Maungdaw Townshhip for those returning by road, and at Nga Khu Ya village for those returning by boat. The verifications follows a promise by Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sept. 19 that she would begin the process immediately.

The refugees will be settled at Dar Gyi Zar village about 20 kilometers from Maungdaw, not far from the Bangladesh border. It was one of the areas hit hard by violence that began on Aug. 25 and developed into a full-blown refugee and humanitarian crisis as Rohingya fled.

Amid global pressure and tension between the two countries, Myanmar State Counsellor Office minister, Kyaw Tint Swe, arrived in Bangladesh Oct. 2 to discuss the Rohingya crisis with Bangladeshi's Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali. After the meeting, Ali told reporters that Myanmar has proposed to take back Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh has handed Myanmar a draft repatriation agreement and suggested implementation of the Annan Commission report, he said.

A Rohingya woman helps an elderly relative disembark from a boat after arriving at Shah Porir Dwip Island in Cox's Bazar district, Bangladesh from Myanmar's Rakhine State on Sept. 29. (ucanews.com photo)


Based on 1993 agreement

Suu Kyi said verified refugees will be accepted without any problem and will have full assurances of security and access to humanitarian aid, according to the 1993 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

That process saw 200,000 Rohingya refugees, who fled military violence in Myanmar in 1991-1992, being able to return. It also saw about 30,000 left behind in Bangladesh as they were unable to produce sufficient documentation to pass the process that was run by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). To date, it remains the lone success for the agency in relation to the Rohingya crisis.

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Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, said it was difficult to say how many refugees can return to Rakhine, as the Myanmar government's policy remained unclear.

"For the refugees, their houses were burned down and they lack documents for verification and new resettlement places," Lewa told ucanews.com.

She says the process will take years due to the sluggish and complex bureaucratic processes and much will ride on the increasingly fractious relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

"[Land ownership] is also a big question for the refugees as the government has reportedly said that the government owns the burned land in accordance with a disaster law," Lewa said.

Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State are suspicious of the government's verification plan, fearing it would be more difficult and complex for them to gain citizenship.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya activist from a camp for internally displaced people near the Rakhine State capital Sittwe, said Rohingya homes were burned down and they fled to Bangladesh in fear; so many faced challenges in proving their identity in any verification process.

"We, the Rohingya are not illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the national verification process is unnecessary as it systematically makes it more difficult for Rohingya to gain citizenship," said Kyaw Hla Aung.

Rohingya Muslims are already denied Myanmar citizenship despite the ethnic group being in Rakhine for centuries.

The government and the Buddhist Rakhines don't consider the Rohingya as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups. Instead they identify them as recent "Bengali interlopers" from Bangladesh. Under the 1982 citizenship law, any path to citizenship for them would require identifying as Bengali.

Kofi Annan's Rakhine Advisory Commission recommended last month an acceleration of the national verification process and revisiting the 1982 citizenship law enacted under the military junta with ruled Myanmar from 1962-2010 and controlled the first civilian government up until November 2015 when the National League for Democracy (NLD) won power.

The military, hard-line Buddhists and political parties including the ruling NLD, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party continue to support the 1982 citizenship law.


Rashid Ahmed, 67, a Rohingya refugee has lived in Bangladesh for 17 years. (ucanews.com photo)


'Smoke screen'

Rashid Ahmed, 67, a registered refugee from Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar said he moved to Bangladesh from Rathedaung in 1992 and decided to stay put for various reasons, including a lack of documentation to prove his identity.

Ahmed, a father of five, was 40 when he first came to Bangladesh and said one of his sons traveled to Malaysia by sea a few years ago, and is now in the United States.

"About 200,000 Rohingya returned, but I didn't, as I could not prove my identity as a resident of Burma (the old name for Myanmar). Moreover, I came to know that the Moghs (the Rohingya slang name for Rakhine Buddhists) periodically abused those who returned, forcing them to work in fields for free," Ahmed told ucanews.com. "I also know the Rohingya who went back after 1978 didn't get their land or property back from the government," he said.

"I have serious doubts over the intentions of the Burmese government. The Rohingya have lived there for centuries, yet still they are denied citizenship. The verification process is just a smoke screen as the international community is putting pressure on the Suu Kyi government," he said.

"This process will make the lives of the Rohingya worse as they won't be able to identify as residents of Arakan (Rakhine) and their aim to gain citizenship will be thwarted," he added.

The Myanmar government is hosting a visit by 20 foreign diplomats to Rakhine which began on Oct. 2.


Abu Siddique, a Rohingya refugee, at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district. He was shot and wounded by Myanmar soldiers as he helped his family flee Rakhine State.(ucanews.com photo)


'Ready to take part in war'

Abu Siddique, 43, from Buthidaung in Rakhine, said he returned to Myanmar in 1993 but was forced to go back to Bangladesh.

"In 1993, I had an ID card that I gave to the UNHCR to enlist as a resident of Arakan. One day, UNHCR officials told us to get ready to go back home, so I went back," Siddique told ucanews.com.

"I found my land occupied by Moghs and I was forced to work for them as free labor. I became sad and frustrated, as there was no hope to get my property back, so within a year I came back to Bangladesh and settled here," he said.

"Burma must grant us citizenship, so we can live peacefully as equal citizens. To realize our rights, we are ready to take part in war. It is better to die in a war, fighting for your rights, than living in slave-like, stateless conditions," he added.

A week after violence erupted on Aug. 25, he went to fetch his daughter, son-in-law and grandson from Buthidaung and Myanmar soldiers fired upon them. Siddique's son-in-law was killed and he was wounded while saving his grandson.

Nazrul Islam, an official from the Bangladesh's state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, said he was hopeful about the verification and repatriation of the Rohingya.

"I think it is possible to repatriate the Rohingya under the 1993 agreement, but it will require some changes. In order to prove that the Rohingya here are from Myanmar we have initiated registration process and have ensured they don't leave the camps or mix up with locals," said Islam.

"There must be some provisions for refugees to prove they are from Myanmar although many don't have any documents. Aid groups can be useful in identifying them and an effective bilateral relationship between two countries is important. There is no doubt the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, the government can in no way deny this," he said.   



Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia for Human Rights Watch, said he is skeptical about the verification process.

"The fact that there are approximately 30,000 refugees who fled in 1993 still living in Bangladesh camps is a clear indicator of the weakness of this process. In these latest incidents, whatever documents the Rohingya had were either burned in their houses or destroyed in their long slog through monsoon rains to refuge in Bangladesh," said Robertson.

The reality is Myanmar doesn't want any of these refugees coming back, but they are trying to sound reasonable for the international community, he said.

"Without basic guarantees for protection, it's too early to be talking about repatriating these refugees. Such conversations fall into the category of planning for the future instead of dealing with the crisis at hand faced by 500,000 people with wholly inadequate food, water, sanitation and shelter," he added.

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