NAYPYITAW — The first 2,000 mainly Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh will start returning to Rakhine State on Nov. 15, Myanmar’s social welfare, relief and resettlement minister, U Win Myat, told reporters in Naypyitaw on Wednesday.
He said U Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, settled on the date during a meeting in Dhaka on Tuesday with Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary M. Shahidul Haque.
“Both governments agreed at yesterday’s meeting that the Myanmar government will receive 150 people per week and they would come through the Ngakura entry point,” U Win Myat said.
Ngakura is located along Bangladesh’s border with Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township.
The social welfare minister said Myanmar assured its neighbor that after many delays it was now safe for the refugees to return, nearly a year after they agreed in principle to repatriate the 700,000 mostly Rohingya who have fled Rakhine since late August, 2017, to escape a military crackdown.
Bangladesh has to date given Myanmar a list of just over 8,000 refugees it says have volunteered to return.
On a visit to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday, U Myint Thu said Myanmar has so far vetted and verified 5,000 of them as former residents of Rakhine.
During the secretary’s visit to the camps, a Rohingya community leader, Abdul Rahim, said Myanmar should grant the returning refugees equal rights and issue them national ID cards, not national verification cards, which the Rohingya say block their path to citizenship. He also urged the international media to monitor the repatriations and resettlements carefully.
U Tun Kyi, a Muslim and former political prisoner who lives in Yangon, said Rohingya who fled Myanmar deserve full citizenship rights on their return.
“When you listen to the voices of the refugees from the camps, they have made demands. If they truly lived in those places [in Myanmar], they have the right to become citizens. If they are eligible to become citizens, they must be entitled to the full rights of a citizen,” he said.
And while some have argued that the Rohingya crisis is isolated to northern Rakhine, U Tun Kyi said the international pressure the military’s alleged human rights violations have brought to bear on Myanmar was affecting the entire country.
“Only when the refugees know that they can come back safely and shape their futures will the international pressure subside,” he said.
U Pe Than, an Arakan National Party central committee member, said the government had to make sure that any refugees involved in the militant attacks on security posts in Rakhine State that triggered the military crackdown are not allowed to return.
“Accepting the refugees alone won’t help to decrease the international pressure, because it [the international community] is ambitious,” he added. “There will be more pressure to ensuring their citizenship and related rights and to accept the term Rohingya.”
The government of Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya an ethnic group. It refers to them as Bengali, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Myanmar has agreed to accept the UN’s help in speeding up the repatriation process and formed an ad hoc commission to investigate alleged human rights violations in northern Rakhine following the August 2017 militant attacks.
The UN says there are now 887,661 refugees from Myanmar living in the Cox’s Bazar camps, driven out of Rakhine by the violence late last year and by earlier bouts of communal violence. Bangladesh puts the number at 1,118,578.
Additional reporting from Dhaka by Muktadir Rashid.