Rohingya refugees seen at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on Sept. 27, 2017. Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to start a fresh repatriation process of 3,540 Rohingya refugees from Aug. 22. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have started a fresh move to repatriate thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled a military crackdown in 2017, triggering a sense of skepticism and unease among the refugee community.
Authorities in the neighboring countries in collaboration with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) are planning to repatriate 3,540 Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar district in southeast Bangladesh to Rakhine State of Myanmar starting on Aug. 22, Reuters news agency reported.
The list of refugees slated for return was cleared by Myanmar after Bangladesh handed over a list of 22,000 refugees during the recent visit of a Myanmar delegation to Bangladesh last month.
This is the second repatriation effort after a similar attempt on Nov. 15 last year failed amid unwillingness and protests by refugees.
More than one million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine are housed in more than two dozen camps in Cox’s Bazar. Most fled to escape a military crackdown that started on Aug. 25, 2017.
Bangladesh is committed to the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their homeland, according to Muhammad Abul Kalam, head of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.
“Preparations are underway for repatriation. We are working with UNHCR to motivate people in the list to get ready to return, but no one will be forced and their return will be voluntary,” Kalam told ucanews.com.
However, he declined to respond when asked what they would do if Rohingya people again refuse to go back to Rakhine.
Rohingya refugees have expressed skepticism about the fresh repatriation move.
“Most Rohingya are not aware of the new plan, and as far as I know those on the list have not been consulted or whether they are willing to go back to Myanmar right now,” Muhib Ullah, a Rohingya rights activist based in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, told ucanews.com.
“We are also unclear on what basis the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to start the repatriation process now.”
Ullah pointed out that Rohingya people have made it clear on various occasions that they will only go back home if their three key demands — citizenship, international-level security and a return to their homeland, not camps — are fulfilled.
Rohingya are also concerned about the current situation in Rakhine.
“Rohingya are doubtful whether the timing of repatriation is good enough because Arakan Army rebels are fighting with the military,” Ullah said.
“If Myanmar’s government can guarantee peace in Rakhine and the fulfillment of our demands, Rohingya will be ready to go back home anytime.”
Muhammad Rezwan, 22, who arrived at Kutupalong refugee camp in early September 2017 with his seven-member family, expressed similar concerns.
“I wonder how it is possible to start Rohingya repatriation right now because a war between Arakan Army rebels and Myanmar’s military is ongoing. Even if the names of my family are on the new list, I won’t go back because it is dangerous as the situation is not favorable,” he said.
Rezwan said the Rohingya’s voice was ignored when Bangladesh, Myanmar and UNHCR signed the repatriation deal last year.
“There is no doubt every Rohingya will go back willingly if they get the promises that their return will be peaceful and their life will be better in Myanmar,” he added.
James Gomes, regional director of Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong, said the fresh repatriation plan might be a “token move” ahead of the second anniversary of the Rohingya exodus.
“I think that both Bangladesh and Myanmar are trying to do something with regards to August 25, the date two years ago when Rohingya started fleeing to Bangladesh from Rakhine State to escape military atrocities,” Gomes told ucanews.com.
“The peaceful solution to the Rohingya crisis depends on the dignified return of Rohingya to their homeland. We want to see the repatriation start but the return of Rohingya should be completely voluntary.”