It’s been nine months since Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to repatriate the Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State, but the ethnic minorities deprived of citizenship and tortured in their homeland do not know when they will be able to return there.
Saturday marks one year of the humanitarian crisis, caused by a Myanmar army crackdown, on the two banks of the Naf River along the Bangladesh border.
The Bangladesh government is still hopeful of repatriating the Rohingyas while Myanmar says it is ready to take back the refugees, but no-one can say when the process will begin.
Myanmar’s failure to complete preparations for Rohingya return as per the agreement is delaying the repatriation, Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief ad Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam told bdnews24.com.
“We can’t force them to go back until the root causes of the crisis are dealt with,” he said.
Agreement, blaming each other
Despite hundreds of years of residence in Rakhine, Myanmar revoked citizenship of the Rohingya Muslims in 1982.
Around 400,000 of the Muslim minority group have fled decades of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh in past four decades.
The recent crisis unfolded when the Myanmar army launched a crackdown in response to insurgent attacks on security posts on Aug 25 last year, leading to the exodus of over 700,000.
The refugees recounted horrifying stories of killings, rapes, arson attacks and other atrocities.
Following intense criticism and international pressure, the Myanmar government with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as its de facto leader agreed to take back the refugees and signed an initial deal with Bangladesh.
The two countries then formed a joint panel to speed up the repatriation and a ‘physical arrangement’ was signed in January.
Under the agreement, Bangladesh would set up five transit camps from which returnees would be taken initially in two reception centres on the Myanmar side, the foreign ministry said.
The two countries set a target of two years from the start of the repatriation to complete the process.
Later, the United Nations included itself in the process by signing separate deals with the two countries to ensure safe, voluntary and dignified return of the refugees.
Bangladesh has handed Myanmar a list of over 8,000 verified refugees, but no-one has returned under the deal yet.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blamed Myanmar in April for delaying the repatriation, saying the country was taking no initiative to that end despite its promises.
Myanmar refused her claim. Recently, Suu Kyi said Bangladesh has to start the process and Myanmar’s job will be to welcome the returnees.
Bid to hide failure?
Asked about the Myanmar authorities’ claim, repatriation commissioner Kalam said, “Rohingya repatriation certainly doesn’t depend on our wish, but on the preparations by them (Myanmar).”
Myanmar is yet to resolve issues like ensuring safety of the returnees, their livelihood and other rights, according to him.
Kalam was on Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali-led tour party that visited Rakhine earlier this month to inspect the preparations by Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation.
He said he did not see much readiness on the part of Myanmar to begin the process anytime soon.
“They have only set up a transit camp and some small places for their indigenous people. They are yet to create a favourable atmosphere for the Rohingyas,” he said.
Kalam also alleged Suu Kyi might have tried to conceal their failure in her recent comments.
“Her remarks are unfortunate. It’s frustrating that a leader like her is passing the blame on us. She might have done it to conceal their failure or lack of preparations,” he said.
Bangladesh has already built a transit camp and the work to build another is almost complete, according to him.
“We are yet to make the family-based list of the Rohingyas. It’s being done. But the real matter is that the repatriation will have to be voluntary and safe, and that depends on Myanmar,” he said.
According to the agreement, he said, Myanmar will take the returnees to their homes first, and if that was not possible, to any place of the Rohingyas’ choice.
“But it’s not only housing the Rohingyas, their safety and right to free movement must be ensured first.
“And the greater issue of citizenship remains while the issues like housing, livelihood, safety have not been resolved,” he said.
What do Rohingyas want?
Myanmar authorities and its army, which still controls much of the elected government, do not refer the ethnic Muslim minority as ‘Rohingya’. They call the Rohingyas ‘Bengalis’ or ‘illegal migrants’.
Many of the Rohingyas who recently crossed the border into Bangladesh had returned to Myanmar from the refugee camps once.
Now they want their safety, justice for atrocities, properties, and other rights to be ensured first before they go back.
Shafiqur Shafi, a muezzin from Burichong in Rakhine, fled to Bangladesh with his two wives and seven children in September last year when the Myanmar security forces shot his elder son dead and torched their home.
Shafi, who now resides at Moynarghona Camp in Cox’s Bazar, said, “We want citizenship because no-one gets justice without it. I had a pond. I want it back. I want to stay at home safely with my family.”
Nurantis Begum crossed the border after losing her father and three siblings in the crackdown in August last year.
She also lost a leg while escaping. Now she stays with another family at the camp.
She said she feels like getting choked at her room in the camp. Memories of her home in Myanmar, and her brother’s shop are still fresh in her mind, but she is not confident of a safe return.
“I can’t even walk alone. I won’t be able to escape if this (atrocities) happens again. They must ensure my safety first. They don’t consider women as human beings there,” she said.
“I won’t get back my family, but I can demand justice. I am ready to return immediately if they give me citizenship,” Nurantis added.