Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN) – Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed a timeframe for repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled crackdowns from the military.
Myanmar has agreed to accept 1,500 Rohingya each week, Bangladesh says, adding that it aims to return all of them to Myanmar within two years, reports BBC.
More than 740,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh amid violence in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017.
Aid agencies have raised concerns about forcibly repatriating them.
Bangladesh says it aims to repatriate families together, as well as orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence” – meaning children conceived as a result of rape.
However, displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh have expressed concerns about returning to Myanmar.
Sirajul Mostofa, a community leader in a camp in Cox’s Bazaar, told the BBC: “We are still not clear about what agreement was signed.
“Our first priority is, they have to grant us citizenship as Rohingyas. Secondly, they have to give back our lands. Thirdly, our security must be ensured internationally. Otherwise, this is not good for us.”
Bangladeshi foreign secretary Shahidul Haque told BBC Bangla that the government had wanted to repatriate the Rohingya more quickly.
“We asked them to take back 15,000 every week. But they said they will take back 300 people every day, so that makes 1,500 every week.
“So we compromised that we will start by sending 300 people each day, but there will be a review in three months’ time and the number will be increased.”
‘MISTRUST AND FEAR’
At 1,500 refugees a week it would take almost 10 years to bring back all 740,000 who have left since October 2016. Bangladesh hopes that flow can be increased. But as matters stand it is difficult to see how.
Both countries have agreed the repatriation will be voluntary. And most refugees say they will only return if their safety can be assured, their homes rebuilt, and if they are no longer subjected to official discrimination. None of these conditions is in place.
Myanmar has started rebuilding, but mostly for non-Muslims. It is preparing two transit camps, the first able to accommodate 30,000 people. Beyond that not much has changed.
More than 350 villages, nearly all of them Rohingya, have been burned down, some recently. The military, which is accused of terrible human rights abuses, still runs northern Rakhine state. It has denied the abuses, denied access to independent investigators, and strictly limits access for aid agencies.
There is talk of closing the camps in which 130,000 Rohingyas are still confined, but not yet of ending restrictions on Rohingya movements. And nothing is yet happening to reduce the mistrust and fear of Rohingyas felt by the non-Muslim population, some of whom have vowed to fight against any large-scale refugee return.
Myanmar’s foreign secretary U Myint Thu told BBC Burmese: “The repatriation process will commence on 23 January.”
He said three more transit camps were “under construction”, and there were plans to “build new villages”.
A spokesperson from the UN High Commission for Refugees urged Myanmar to address the underlying causes of the crisis and said that refugees should only return when they feel it is safe for them to go back.
Andrej Mahecic said there were major challenges, including ensuring the Rohingya were “told about the situation in their areas of origin” and “consulted on their wishes, that their safety is ensured”.
The agreement covers Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh following attacks by a Rohingya militant group on police posts in October 2016 and August 2017.
Those attacks triggered a military crackdown that led to widespread allegations of killings, rape and torture of Rohingya.
The agreement does not cover Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh prior to October 2016, under previous crackdowns and bouts of communal violence.
When the initial repatriation deal was signed in November, Amnesty International said it doubted there could be safe or dignified returns “while a system of apartheid remains” and added that it “hoped those who do not want to go home are not forced to do so”.
The Rohingya are a stateless minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
IS REFUGEE CRISIS ‘TEXTBOOK ETHNIC CLEANSING’?
The crisis has been described as ethnic cleansing by the UN and the US.
Despite widespread accusations of human rights violations, Myanmar has consistently denied persecuting its Rohingya minority.