Concerns are mounting over a joint plan from Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State last year.
The repatriation program is expected to begin Tuesday, Myanmar state media reported. The two countries plan to return more than 650,000 refugees currently in Bangladesh to Rakhine State within two years, according to a statement released by Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry.
Rights group Amnesty International called the plan “premature,” and that “returning so soon will be a terrifying prospect” for many Rohingya.
“With memories of rape, killing and torture still fresh in the minds of Rohingya refugees, plans for their return to Myanmar are alarmingly premature,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.
The UN, which has called the bloodshed ethnic cleansing, said its refugee body was not closely involved with the repatriation process and urged both countries to make sure the mainly Muslim Rohingya refugees return voluntarily.
The Global New Light of Myanmar said Wednesday that Bangladesh had provided a list of more than 1,000 refugees who had been verified as Myanmar residents that would likely be in the first batch of returnees.
In a meeting that took place in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, the two countries agreed that Bangladesh would establish five transit camps close to the border between the two countries, from which returnees would be received initially in two reception centers on the Myanmar side.
According to Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, Myanmar would shelter the returnees in a temporary accommodation at the 124-acre Hla Pho Khung camp near Maungdaw township, which can accommodate 30,000 people in its 625 buildings.
The Myanmar government would work to expeditiously rebuild the houses for returnees to move in there, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry statement reads.
Wakar Uddin, the US-based Director General of the Arakan Rohingya Union, a non-profit group representing various Rohingya organizations worldwide, said that he had reservations about about the safety of Rohingya once they’ve returned to Myanmar.
“It is a bad deal because the refugees are going to be transferred from one camp from Bangladesh to another camp in Burma, where there will be serious security concerns,” he said, using another name for Myanmar.
Earlier in January the Myanmar military admitted involvement in the the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims found in a mass grave last month in Rakhine State.
Refugees have fled into Bangladesh with accounts of mass killings, systematic rape and torching of villages at the hands of the military and local vigilantes.
The Myanmar government says the bloodshed resulted from a military crackdown on militants who carried out coordinated attacks on border posts and that civilians were not targeted.
Both the UN and the United States have labeled the violence ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country in which Rohingya Muslims represent only a small fraction of the overall population.
Minimal UN involvement
The deal is unusual in that it did not involve UN refugee agency UNHCR beyond the consultation stage, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters Tuesday.
“We believe it would be very important to have UNHCR fully involved in the operation to guarantee that the operation abides by international standards,” he said. He added that it was “essential” to ensure that the return of the refugee population is voluntary.
“It’s in safety and dignity and that people are allowed to come back to their places of origin, which means that the huge effort of investment, because there is a lot of reconstruction to be done, and a huge effort of reconciliation is needed to allow it to take place properly.”
He said the “worst” situation would be if the refugees were merely rehoused in camps in Myanmar, “keeping an artificial situation for a long time and not allowing for them to regain their normal lives.
He said the UN was ready to “support a movement taking place, as I said, based on voluntariness, safety, dignity, and in respect to international standards.”
Able to live freely?
CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who has spoken to dozens of Rohingya families in camps in Bangladesh, says that the plan presents more questions than answers.
Whether overseas monitors will oversee the transition or continued security of returnees; if they will be able to live freely in villages, or will end up in de facto internment camps in Rakhine is uncertain.
This uncertainty is giving those camped out in camps along the border pause, she said.
“It’s very difficult to contemplate how Rohingya Muslims could possibly contemplate how to go back in such huge numbers with no guarantee of their safety when Rohingya Muslims who are currently living inside Myanmar are mostly living in de facto internment camps,” she said.
While the Bangladeshi and Myanmar sides were discussing the practicalities of repatriating the Rohingya, Ward said that neither were making a commitment to the far more concerning issues of human rights or security.