Myanmar, Bangladesh to begin 2nd attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees

A Rohingya refugee child looks through a window at a makeshift camp in Teknuf in Cox's Bazar. EPA

BANGKOK — Myanmar and Bangladesh will soon make a second attempt to start repatriating Rohingya Muslims, 700,000 of whom fled a security crackdown in Myanmar almost two years ago, officials from the two countries and the United Nations said Friday.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay, speaking in his country’s capital, Naypyitaw, said the parties concerned had agreed that the process would begin next Thursday.

Bangladesh Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam said the identities of the refugees have been confirmed by Myanmar and they could go back there if they want.

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Speaking in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, he said the government had ordered local officials in Cox’s Bazar district to locate those on the list in the four refugee camps there, but their repatriation would only happen if they want to return voluntarily.

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He said Bangladesh is ready to provide support to any refugees who wish to return home, but also would not use force to make them go back.

Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Associated Press that the Bangladesh government has asked for its help in verifying 3,450 people who signed up for voluntary repatriation. She said the list was whittled down from 22,000 names that Bangladesh had sent to Myanmar for verification.

Leaders of the Rohingya refugee community in the camps said they had not been consulted on the matter and were unaware of plans for any imminent return.

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Myanmar’s military in August 2017 launched a counterinsurgency campaign in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The army operation led to the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh and accusations that security forces committed mass rapes, killings and burned thousands of homes.

The U.N.-established Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Myanmar has rejected the report and any suggestion its forces did anything wrong.

In July, Myanmar officials went to the camps in Bangladesh to talk to the refugees about their plans and preparations to bring them back, in the latest of several similar visits. So far, most refugees appear to distrust the promises and believe it is too dangerous to return.

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Gluck said it is unclear when any repatriation might begin, given the need to find and check all the individuals and the fact that there is a major holiday at the moment in Bangladesh.

It is also possible it may stall, as it did last year.

Bangladesh authorities then had arranged transportation and other facilities for their return, but the refugees protested against the move, saying they would not go back because they did not feel safe. The authorities waited for a day to find a refugee who would go back voluntarily but found none. Bangladesh then suspended the repatriation attempt.

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“It’s very hard to say whether people will accept voluntary repatriation this time round,” Gluck said. “They tell us very clearly we want to go back with … full rights. They are not willing to go back if nothing on the ground has changed.”

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The Rohingya have long been treated as outsiders in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations.

Nearly all Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless, and they are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.

Zaw Htay said at a news conference that his country’s authorities had checked if the people on the list had previously lived in Myanmar and whether they had been involved in what he called “terrorism attacks,” a reference to sporadic armed actions by Rohingya insurgents.

“If they are sending these 3,450 returnees back, we can accept them immediately,” he said. He said Myanmar’s government has proposed resettling them as a group, not separately, a plan that is controversial because it suggests they will not be returning to their own homes.

— Alam reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Associated Press writer Pyae Sone Win in Mandalay, Myanmar, contributed to this report.

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