A Rohingya man carries his elderly mother on his back as they arrive at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh from strife-torn Rakhine State in Myanmar on Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
A deal to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh to escape deadly violence in Myanmar’s strife-torn Rakhine State has been greeted with a mixture of hope, despair and rage on both sides of the border.
A 13-hour meeting of the Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group finalized arrangements at Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on Jan. 15.
The deal stipulates that repatriation will preferably be completed within two years.
More than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine in response to Rohingya militant attacks last August on 30 security checkpoints and a military base in the state.
About one million Rohingya are sheltering in up to 12 formal and informal camps located in Cox’s Bazar just across the border.
Muhammad Ali, 35, a Rohingya living with his wife and six children in Kutupalong refugee camp, said he hopes refugees will return home.
“We want to go back home but we want a guarantee of our safety and a concrete promise of citizenship in Myanmar. We must get back our land and be allowed to live like equal citizens with basic rights. Everyone will go back if our rights are granted, but they won’t go back to face persecution again,” Ali, who fled Maungdaw in Rakhine in September last year, told ucanews.com.
Nur Hashem, 38, a Rohingya schoolteacher from Maungdaw who lives in Balukhali refugee camp with his wife and four children, cast doubts on the deal.
“The promises Myanmar made are just a smokescreen. Rohingya were fooled by promises over the years, but they got nothing and were forced to become refugees again and again due to persecution,” said Hashem, who moved to Bangladesh in late August.
“Rohingya will put trust in Myanmar only if concrete promises are made to grant them citizenship and to ensure their peaceful living in Rakhine.”
Muhammad Shamsudohja, an additional commissioner of the state-run Refugee Repatriation and Relief Committee, said the committee is hopeful about the deal.
“We don’t yet have details of the modalities of the agreement, but we are to implement it. We are hopeful that we can complete the repatriation within two years,” Shamsudohja told ucanews.com.
James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong, which covers Cox’s Bazar, is optimistic about the deal.
“For now, we are hopeful as Myanmar said a temporary camp for 30,000 refugees would be ready. We want to see the repatriation process start soon and continue as long it needs to complete,” Gomes said.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s union minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, and Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine State, have inspected villages and camps as preparations start to receive refugees from Bangladesh.
A 124-acre temporary campsite in Hla Po Khaung Rakhine will accommodate 30,000 people in 625 buildings. Forty buildings will be completed by Jan. 25 and 100 by Jan. 31, according to state media on Jan. 15.
As per a repatriation agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh inked in November, the first batch of returnees could start to return on Jan. 23 but questions remain over how many refugees will return and the feasibility of the tentative timeline.
San Wai, deputy director of the Rakhine State Immigration and Population Department, said the department has sent staff to the two places in northern Rakhine to begin the process of receiving refugees from Bangladesh.
“We are ready to accept the people but the list of the people has yet to be sent from Bangladesh,” San Wai told ucanews.com.
He added that the exact date of starting the repatriation remains unclear as top-level officials are still discussing details.
The hardline Buddhist party Arakan National has opposed the government’s plan to resettle refugees in southern Maungdaw by citing security concerns for ethnic Rakhine.
“We strongly oppose new resettlement areas in southern Maungdaw, which has easy access to cross over to Bangladesh,” the party said in a statement on Jan. 15.
"The Myanmar side provided to the Bangladesh side the detailed lists of 508 persons of Hindu faith and 750 persons of Muslim faith who have been verified as Myanmar residents and suggested the latter to include them in the first batch of repatriation. Both sides agreed that the repatriation process will commence on January 23, 2018," Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Jan. 16.