Bangladesh said on Tuesday it had agreed to complete the process of returning the Muslim Rohingya to Myanmar within two years from the start of the repatriation process.
The plan for the return of the Rohingya, which Myanmar says will begin next Tuesday, has received some skepticism from non-governmental organizations, which said it had not adequately addressed issues relating to refugee safety, livelihoods and permanent resettlement.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the efforts to return the Rohingya were based on “family unification” and that Myanmar would provide temporary shelter for returnees before rebuilding their homes.
The statement said that Bangladesh will establish five temporary camps, from which the Rohingya will be transferred to reception centers on the Myanmar side of the border.
“Myanmar has confirmed its commitment to stop the flow of Myanmar people to Bangladesh.”
The statement also called for the return of orphans and children born as a result of their mothers being raped.
Based on field interviews, UN medics and activists say the rape of Myanmar’s security forces by Rohingya women was common. The army denies involvement in any sexual assault.
The crisis erupted after rebels from the Rohingya attacked security positions on Aug. 25 in the western state of Rakhine, provoking a violent military response from the army, which the United Nations called ethnic cleansing. About 650,000 acts of violence have been saved.
Myanmar denies ethnic cleansing and says its security forces have launched legitimate counterinsurgency operations.
– Verification process –
The meeting, held in Myanmar’s capital Nayipidaw, was the first meeting of a working group set up to discuss the details of the November transfer agreement.
The Myanmar government made no statement after the meeting on Tuesday.
Myanmar has signed the agreement with Bangladesh and aims to start the return process by Jan. 23, Ko Ko Niang, director-general of the Myanmar Ministry of Social Affairs’s Rescue and Resettlement Department, told Reuters by telephone.
Government spokesman Zhao Htai told Reuters last week that returnees would be able to apply for citizenship “after they have passed the verification process” of their identity.
A Myanmar agency set up to oversee the return process said in a statement on Thursday that two temporary “return and assessment” camps and another to accommodate returnees had been set up.
Min Kiang, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population, told Reuters this month that his country would be ready to handle the demands of at least 150 people a day in both camps by Jan. 23.
The talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh did not address the concerns and concerns of the refugees themselves, “as if they were an inert mass of people who would go anywhere at any time they were told,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of human rights affairs at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters by e-mail.
“Where are the considerations of protecting the Rohingya from the security forces in Myanmar, which for two months raped and killed them? How do conversations ignore the denial of rights to people in indefinite detention, which will become so-called ‘temporary’ accommodation? ”
– Live like prisoners –
A group of refugees at the Kotobalong camp of Rohingya expressed doubts about the “temporary camps” Myanmar agreed to set up on its side of the border.
“The camps in Myanmar will be much worse because we will be trapped there and our lives will be at risk,” said Mohamed Farouk, 20, who arrived in Bangladesh from Mongdao after the Aug. 25 attacks.
Another camp resident compared the two transitional camps at a camp near Sakhui, capital of Rakhine state, after violence in previous years “where people lived like prisoners.”
“First ask the army to return the Rohingya to their homes and property and then talk to us about the return,” said a Rohingya refugee who asked not to be named.
“Even if I do not get food here or anything else, at least there is safety,” said Rashid Ahmed, 33, who said violence in Myanmar had made it hard for them to trust the army. I will not feel safe if I return to Myanmar.”
Noor Allam, 36, who came to Kotobalong five months ago, asked if he could find a job in Myanmar. “They do not even call us the Rohingya. We will not return until they consider us citizens. ”
“If he is forced to return, he will tell the authorities in Bangladesh,” Kill me here, “he said.
Some young people in the camp are worried that they may be arrested on terrorism charges if they are returned. “I’ll stay here,” said 14-year-old Mohammed Rafik. I’m going to work in a tea shop or a phone shop. I’ll do anything. ”
The United Nations called on Tuesday for the Rohingya refugees to be informed of the situation in Rakhine state before allowing them to return voluntarily and peacefully.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday that conditions in the camps in Bangladesh were harsh, adding that more than 520,000 children from the Rohingya were also at greater risk before the hurricane season, which usually begins in April.
“The great challenges must be overcome … including ensuring that they are informed of the situation in their homelands … and consulting them about their wishes and ensuring their safety,” said UNHCR spokesman Andre Mahicic.
“Hundreds of thousands of children are living in appalling conditions and will face greater risks of disease, floods, landslides and further displacement,” said UNICEF representative in Bangladesh, Edward Begbedeh.
About one million Rohingyas live in Bangladesh, including those who arrived there after previous displacements dating back to the 1990s.