YANGON — Social Welfare Union Minister U Win Myat Aye told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to start repatriating Rohingya refugees before the end of January.
Bangladeshi news outlets reported that the country’s foreign affairs minister, M Sahidul Haque, and U Myint, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s own Foreign Affairs Ministry, signed off on the terms of reference for a Joint Working Group (JWG) in Dhaka. Each country will have at least 15 members on the JWG.
In late November, the two countries inked a memorandum of understanding and agreed to form the JWG within three weeks to work on repatriating the more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked several police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine State in late August. The UN has called the clearance operations the Myanmar Army launched in response a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
According to a Dhaka Tribune report, the agreed terms of reference recognize the Rohingya refugees as displaced “Myanmar residents” and say official transfers will begin by Jan. 23.
The news reports say the Bangladeshi foreign minister will lead the JWC and that the body will include representatives from several government agencies from both Bangladesh and Myanmar, including disaster management, home affairs, immigration and national intelligence.
Minister U Win Myat Aye, who also chairs a special committee charged with overseeing implementation of recommendations by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said he did not know the composition of the JWC because he did not join Myanmar’s delegation to Bangladesh for the signing.
The minister said Myanmar has already handed out application forms for the refugees to fill out with their background information. He said each completed form will be examined for accuracy and, once approved, sent back to Bangladesh to allow the refugee’s return.
“We don’t have a specific number of refugees [to repatriate] because it is voluntary repatriation. We told them to prioritize displaced Hindus but it needs official recognition by the Joint Working Group,” U Win Myat Aye said.
Although Myanmar has been planning to resettle Rohingya refugees in Maungdaw Township, exactly where remains unclear. U Win Myat Aye suggested that the location of some Muslim villages might change.
“We re-drafted town plans and some things have changed. For instance, if a road expands a village will be located near where it used to be [before the clearance operations]. But some villages will be located in the same place,” he said.
The international community and human rights groups have urged Myanmar to let the refugees return safely to their original home sites.