Stephan Uttom, Cox’s Bazar, Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka, and John Zaw, MandalayUpdated: March 22, 2018 09:25 AM GMT
A Rohingya refugee boy shows his family's temporary residency paper at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Dec. 6. Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal for repatriation of Rohingyas, but many refugees lack documentation as they were lost in arson attacks and while fleeing to Bangladesh since late August. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
For Osman Gani life is relatively peaceful and safe despite scarce relief supplies at Kutupalong ethnic Rohingya refugee camp in the Cox’s Bazar coastal strip of southern Bangladesh.
But lingering fears amid ongoing Buddhist animosity means that a deep yearning to return to his home in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.
Gani would trek back over the border in a flash if he was to be given long-denied Myanmar citizenship and his safety, as well as that of his wife and two children, could be guaranteed.
"Only then we would consider returning home," Gani, 53, from the Buthidaung area of Rakhine, told ucanews.com.
Gani fled to Bangladesh in early September, days after the Myanmar military launched a bloody crackdown to avenge the killing of 12 security personnel by insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25.
More than 620,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the wake of the latest episode of ethnic cleansing.
Safe repatriation would need to be overseen by the international community, Gani said.
About a dozen refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar border area host some one million Rohingya.
While most of them arrived since late August, the rest came following waves of violent Myanmar military suppression that began in the late 1970s.
Deal signed not good enough
Bangladeshi and Myanmar officials signed a bilateral repatriation agreement in the latter’s capital, Naypyidaw, on Nov. 23.
It provided for formation of a joint working committee within three weeks and commencement of repatriation within two months.
The agreement requires refugees to show proof of residency in Myanmar.
However, many refugees lost their documents in arson attacks or when fleeing to Bangladesh by foot and on boats.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told diplomats in Naypyidaw on Dec.7 that repatriation would start in January 2018.
The government would rebuild burned down homes within two months and the returnees would not need to stay in 'temporary camps' any longer than that, the minister said.
The deal is an updated version of a 1992 United Nations' brokered agreement between the two countries that then resulted in more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees returning to Myanmar.
The U.N is not a party to the latest agreement and, so far at least, there is no provision for the international body to be formally involved in monitoring its provisions.
Rohingya women in front of a makeshift refugee camp in Balukhali, Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Aid groups say up to one million Rohingya Muslims are sheltering in Bangladesh and most of them have arrived in the past three months. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Rights groups have criticized the deal
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the deal should be shelved as it was based on an "impossible timetable" for safe and voluntary returns.
Many refugees interviewed by HRW said they did not want to return to Myanmar without security and livelihood guarantees, including on the return of their land and other property.
Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee rights director, said on Dec. 12 that the agreement looked more like a public relations effort by Myanmar than a serious effort to restore the rights of Rohingya.
'Give us citizenship, we will go back immediately'
Abul Kalam, 36, from Rathedaung area of Rakhine state in Myanmar, shifted to Bangladesh in December 2016, following October violence.
He now lives in Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar with his five-member family.
"Myanmar says Rohingya would be put in temporary camps after return and we refuse it," Kalam said.
"We don’t trust Myanmar authorities any more as they have betrayed us."
Kalam said he was afraid that if put into temporary camps in Myanmar, Rohingya could again by shot by the military.
However, Abul Kalam Azad, commissioner of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, is optimistic about repatriation.
"We think repatriation should start and it could be an ongoing process," Azad told ucanews.com.
Aid groups, observers express concerns
Aid agencies including Save the Children and Oxfam raised concerns over any putting of returnees into temporary shelters in Rakhine.
"There should be no form of closed camps or camp-like settlements," international aid groups said in a statement released on Dec. 9, adding that all returns must be voluntary
The aid groups warned that they would refuse to operate in any such camps in Rakhine.
But James Gomes, regional director of Caritas in Chittagong covering the Cox’s Bazar area, is keen for the repatriation process to begin.
"The deal suggests repatriation must be voluntary, not forced in any way," Gomes said.
"Bangladesh is an impoverished and overpopulated nation, so it cannot bear the load of one million additional people for much longer."
Gomes noted that local people in Bangladesh are losing sympathy for the Rohingya refugees because of negative impacts on their social and economic life.
"Repatriation must start before the situation gets worse," Gomes cautioned.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said peace needed to be secured in Rakhine before repatriation commenced.
The UNHCR has offered to help the two governments work towards arrangements that would enable refugees to return freely, safely and in dignity.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank believes prospects are dim for the return of any significant number of Rohingya refugees in the short to medium term.
The main "obstacle" to repatriation was deep-seated fear among Rohingya refugees.
Conditions on the ground in northern Rakhine were far from conducive and the exodus of deeply traumatized refugees continued, a Dec. 7 ICJ report stated.
Myanmar military reservations
The head of Myanmar’s military, Min Aung Hlaing, expressed reservations on repatriation even before the deal was signed.
He warned that the situation would need to be acceptable to both local Buddhist Rakhine people and Rohingya, who he referred to as Bengalis.
The latter reference relates to a common view in Myanmar that rejects the term ‘Rohingya’ and instead brands them as illegal Bengali-speaking migrants.
Myanmar military chief Haling stated in a Nov. 15 Facebook post that emphasis needed to be placed on the wishes of local ethnic Rakhine people "who are real Myanmar citizens".
Rakhine Buddhists have been angrily protesting against signing of the bilateral agreement allowing Rohingya to return to the ethnically troubled state.