Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka, and John Zaw, MandalayUpdated: February 14, 2018 09:24 AM GMT
Rohingya refugees soak in the rain near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 9, 2017. (Photo by Piyas Biswas)
Rohingya refugees and aid workers have welcomed a plan to include the United Nations in the repatriation of tens of thousands of the persecuted minority who fled deadly violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State.
Bangladesh Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam said on Feb. 12 that the government had signed a deal to let the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, take part in the process.
"We have repeatedly said this repatriation process is very complex," Alam was quoted by AFP news agency as saying at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar.
"We want to fill in the [repatriation] forms in their [UN] presence so that no one can say they have been forced by someone or sent back against their will."
The move adds a new dimension to the delayed repatriation of refugees, which was supposed to start last month.
On Jan. 15, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal to repatriate about 770,000 Rohingya Muslims to strife-torn Rakhine. More than 690,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh following a military crackdown in Rakhine in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security posts on Aug. 25 last year.
Hashem Ali, 35, a Rohingya and father of five from Kutupalong refugee camp, welcomed the UN's involvement.
"This is very good news for us. Every Rohingya wants to go back to their ancestral land, but first they want a guarantee of safety and peaceful living on their return. Rohingya have been protesting against repatriation without UN monitoring and now they will be glad and ready to go back home," said Ali, who fled to Bangladesh in September with his family from Maungdaw.
"We have lost faith in Myanmar's government as we have been cheated many times. We trust the UN as they would ensure our safe return and might deploy peacekeeping forces to ensure peace in Rakhine."
Abul Kalam, 38, also a father of five from Balukhali refugee camp, echoed those sentiments.
"From the beginning, we have called for UN involvement in the repatriation process but it was ignored. It's great to see Bangladesh has finally paid heed to the call and now we have confidence the process will be good for refugees, so they can get back home with a hope of peace and stability," Kalam, who fled Rakhine and moved to Bangladesh in late August, told ucanews.com.
UN inclusion will make Rohingya repatriation internationally acceptable, said Ranjon Francis Rozario, assistant executive director of Caritas Bangladesh.
"If Myanmar considered the Rohingya as human beings, it could never do to them what they have been put through. Refugees were afraid to go back under the current deal between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and they have constantly spoken out against a deal without international oversight. The new plan will not just have the backs of Rohingya but will also make the deal internationally acceptable," Rozario told ucanews.com.
Muhammad Abul Kalam, commissioner of Bangladesh state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Committee, said the plan to include the UN was intended to follow international law.
"The repatriation process is ongoing and involving the UN is part of the process. We don't know how Myanmar will accept it but we are adamant the UN must be involved as it has vast expertise in dealing with refugees and repatriation," Kalam told ucanews.com.
Myanmar welcomes international oversight
Myanmar has recently shown its readiness to repatriate refugees by taking diplomats and UN representatives to Rakhine.
On Feb. 9, ambassadors, diplomats and representatives from Canada, Brunei, the European Union, Indonesia, Australia, France, Japan, UNHCR, World Bank, FAO and WFP visited reception centers and a temporary camp in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine.
"We are working on receiving and resettling them according to the law. The government is responsible for refugees who can prove they were residents of Rakhine," Myanmar's Social Affairs Minister Win Myat Aye told Radio Free Asia.
Aung Min, director of the Rakhine State Immigration and Population Department, said it is ready to accept refugees as all preparations have been completed.
Under the repatriation deal signed Jan. 15, Myanmar was due to start receiving Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh at two reception centers and a temporary camp starting on Jan. 23 and continuing over the next two years.
Bangladesh will transfer or hand over verified Myanmar residents in the presence of UNHCR representatives. Myanmar will draw on the services of UNHCR as "needed and at the appropriate time."
Kyaw Min from Democracy and Human Rights, a Yangon-based Rohingya party, said UN's role was included when the agreement was signed and he questioned why Bangladesh was making this move now.
"The voices of Rohingya refugees must be considered beyond the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar. And I doubt it will be possible to complete the repatriation of over 700,000 refugees in the two-year time frame," Kyaw Min told ucanews.com.
Bangladesh's move came after British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson held talks with Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb.10.
They discussed the importance of Myanmar authorities in carrying out a full and independent investigation into violence in Rakhine and the urgent need to create the right conditions for Rohingya refugees to return to their homes there.
Johnson also visited Pantawpyin village in northern Rakhine on Feb.11.
"Shocked at what I saw during tour of northern Rakhine. The devastation of hundreds of villages torched," Johnson tweeted on Feb.11.