A file image of Rohingya refugees offer Eid al-Adha prayers at the Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhia district near Cox's Bazar on Aug. 22, a year since a brutal military crackdown drove the persecuted minority from Myanmar in huge numbers. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP)
Myanmar officials say they're ready to take the first batch of over 2,000 Rohingya refugees to be repatriated from Bangladesh beginning Nov.15, despite concerns from the Rohingya community and international aid groups.
Win Myat Aye, Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said Myanmar can accept up to 300 people per day from mid-November onwards.
"We have made strenuous efforts over several months to reach this development today," Win Myat Aye told a news conference in Yangon on Nov. 11 according to state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
"We are ready to accept them from our side. Whether they send them or not depends on [Bangladesh]."
Myanmar officials said the first batch of 2,260 and second batch of over 2,095 people will be repatriated out of 5,000 approved people.
The two countries on Jan. 16 agreed to repatriate the 700,000 plus Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine State that began in August 2017.
Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye speaks during a press conference in Yangon on Nov. 11. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
However there have been concerns among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that the repatriations are being forced.
Muhammad Amanullah, 28, a refugee from Camp-3 in the Kutupalong refugee settlement area, claimed that selected Rohingya were to be forcefully sent back.
"Everyone knows the situation in Myanmar is not safe for any return. Buddhists are against Rohingya repatriation," Amanullah told ucanews.com.
"If the Bangladesh government wants to force us to leave, we would resist by any means. If not, we will flee to another camp," he added.
Mohammad Sayed, 33, a Rohingya community leader in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar said that he was not ready to go back to Myanmar.
"If the Bangladesh government wants to repatriate us forcefully, we will commit suicide. At least I will get a funeral if I die here in Bangladesh," he said.
"[But] I will be ready to return once I am assured about getting citizenship in Myanmar and a guarantee of safe and peaceful living," Sayed, a father of two told ucanews.com.
Several aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ucanews.com that the Rohingya were not mentally prepared to go back to Myanmar, but due to "sensitivity" over the issue everyone is keeping silent.
"The news of repatriation has created panic and confusion in the community," said an official from an international aid group.
"They are still in shock over what they have experienced and now they are fearing something worse will happen once they go back to where they came from," said the official.
More than 40 international NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children have said refugees continue to flee Myanmar and facilitating repatriation now "would be premature."
"The involuntary return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, where their lives and safety remain at grave risk, is a violation of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement," warned the NGOs in a joint statement on Nov. 9.
There have been reports that Rohingya have been fleeing Bangladeshi refugee camps to avoid being repatriated.
Rohingya refugees walking with belongings in Jamtoli refugee camp near Ukhia in Bangladesh on Nov.12. (Photo by Sam Jahan/AFP)
Selection made through database
Abul Kalam, commissioner of Bangladesh's state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, said the 2,000 Rohingya being repatriated to Myanmar are going back voluntarily.
"We are committed that Rohingya returns should be voluntary, not a single Rohingya would go back to Myanmar against their will," Kalam told ucanews.com.
Kalam said that Rohingya selected for repatriation have been "motivated" but not forced.
"The selection was made through an e-registration database of refugees and we have prepared the list with those who gave their consent to go back to Myanmar," he added.
Aung Kyaw Zan, deputy permanent secretary of Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry, said both Myanmar and Bangladesh have a bilateral agreement that returnees will come back voluntarily.
"They are not being enforced and they will be coming back to Myanmar voluntarily. Whether they would return or not depends on their will," Aung Kyaw Zan told ucanews.com.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that they were not consulted over the repatriation plan.