Myanmar Ready to Receive Returning Rohingya, Ministry Says

By Nyein Nyein & Muktadir Rashid 16 August 2019

CHIANG MAI, Thailand and DHAKA, Bangladesh—Myanmar has long been ready to accept the repatriation of displaced people who fled from Rakhine State to Bangladesh, in line with the agreement reached by the two countries, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said.

Some 3,450 people out of a total of 55,511 who completed verification forms have been cleared to return, according to U Zaw Htay, the President’s Office spokesman.

He told reporters in Naypyitaw at Friday’s regular press briefing that Bangladesh has shared the list of people three times and the Myanmar government has cleared 3,450 people as the first step.

He said, “We are still waiting for confirmation from the Bangladesh government on our proposed date of Aug. 22 to receive the returnees.” However, Myanmar Union ministers and Rakhine State ministers are preparing to go to reception centers to receive them next Thursday.

Reuters reported on Thursday, citing officials from both Myanmar and Bangladesh, that a total of 3,540 Rohingya have been cleared for return by Myanmar and that they will be repatriated starting Aug. 22. However, Bangladesh officials and Rohingya rights groups based in Cox’s Bazar, where most of the refugees are now sheltering, told The Irrawaddy they were unaware of the plan.

Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities are trying to repatriate Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State who fled their homes following the Myanmar military’s reprisals against Rohingya militants who attacked Myanmar border police outposts in October 2016 and August 2017. According to the UN, more than 730,000 Rohingya fled their homes in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw district into neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain stranded.

Efforts to repatriate verified returnees since Jan. 23, 2018 have failed, as a majority of the Rohingya have refused to come back, demanding “protected return”. The refugees also say they have not been consulted on the repatriation process. 

Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye, who is also the vice chair of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD), told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the repatriation program will adhere to the terms of the bilateral agreement signed between the two countries in Nov. 23, 2017. Under the agreement, verified returnees will be received by road at a reception center in Taungpyo Letwei and by boat at another center in Nga Khura. Each center will receive 150 people a day, so a total of 300 people can be processed a day.

“If they do come, they will have to stay in the reception centers for a day and then be moved to the Hla Poe Khaung Transit Center. While they are in transit, they will either be provided with ready-built homes or [placed in] cash-for-work programs, depending on their area of origin, because while the buildings are finished in some places, they are not ready in all places. The rest will not take more than a month to complete,” the minister said.

The governments formed the Myanmar-Bangladesh Joint Working Group in December 2017 to implement the refugees’ repatriation. Since then they have held negotiations and field visits to the camps.

On July 27-29, a high-level Myanmar delegation led by U Myint Thu, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with ASEAN AHA center representatives, met with Bangladeshi officials and dozens of displaced persons residing in the various camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Dr. Win Myat Aye said, “Our delegation shared information leaflets about the programs with the refugees during the recent trip. Actually many of them do not know of the program, including the need to correctly fill in the verification forms, so this information must be shared with them systematically. There may be problems with each step, but we are trying our best.”

The government cannot handle the rehabilitation process alone, and needs the cooperation of various sectors as well as the returnees themselves, said U Ko Ko Naing, the director general of the ministry’s Disaster Management Department.

He said the ministry has prepared support measures, “but for each individual to be able to stand on their own two feet, it is necessary to work together in terms of creating livelihood opportunities, shelters, vocational training and so forth.”

He told The Irrawaddy that “the repatriation programs have been ready for a long time,” and that the ministry was preparing to receive the returnees on Aug. 22.

UEHRD has been building homes for the repatriated Rohingya, while homes are also being built with the support of ASEAN nations as well as India, China and Japan.

On Aug. 12, Myanmar state-run media reported that in Hla Poe Khaung, some 623 homes, each with capacity to house an eight-member family, had been built, and that 90 of 1,090 prefabricated houses provided by China are ready for the repatriated Rohingya to move into.

In addition, 122 homes were built by UEHRD with Japanese support in the Ohtain camp, and 211 were built in Kyein Chaung Taung camp by UEHRD with assistance from Japan and India.

Kazi Mohammad Mozammel Hoque, a member of Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission based in Cox’s Bazar, told The Irrawaddy that he was not aware of any decision related to repatriation in August.

“No, I do not know about it. If it was so, I would have been informed,” he added.

Another official seeking anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press told The Irrawaddy that since the news reports of the return began to spread, he had received a number of phone calls from local and international aid agencies but he could not reply properly as he was not aware of any fresh move to repatriate Rohingya on Aug. 22, just three days before the second anniversary of the Aug. 25, 2017, mass exodus to Bangladesh from Myanmar.

Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights chairman Mohib Ullah was not available for comment but ARSPH spokesperson Muhammed Nowkhim said, “There is no repatriation without talking to Rohingya. If you want to solve the Rohingya crisis peacefully, please discuss with the Rohingya first.”

Shamsul Alom, the chairman of another Rohingya rights group, Voice of Rohingya, said they heard the news of the Aug. 22 repatriation to Myanmar but none were willing to be repatriated in “this way”. “We will have to face the same treatment if we return now, in this way,” the Rohingya leader said, adding, “our demands have not been addressed by the Myanmar government as yet…none of our Rohingya are willing to be repatriated under these circumstances.”

On Aug. 4, Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen expressed his hope that the repatriation of Rohingya to their place of origin in Rakhine State would begin this month on a small scale.

“I’m very positive… I’m expecting that we can start this month,” he said while talking to a small group of reporters at his office, the Dhaka-based Daily Independent reported.

The report said Momen also shared a positive impression he received from meetings he attended in Bangkok recently on the sidelines of the 26th ASEAN Regional Forum.

Referring to his meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, he said both India and China built houses in Myanmar for returning Rohingya to stay in.

On July 24, Momen said he expected to see the commencement of Rohingya repatriation before September and urged the UN to do more in Rakhine State to create a conducive environment so that Rohingya have enough confidence to return to their place of origin.

On the day, he also said the first batch of Rohingya repatriation will begin before September, or before the UN General Assembly, but things depend on Myanmar, as it “created the problem”.

“That is my belief. But it all depends on Myanmar, which created the problem. The solution lies in Myanmar,” he said, indicating that Naypyitaw wants to avoid criticism in the UN General Assembly.

The foreign minister said Myanmar, after Bangladesh’s extensive discussions with China, is showing some willingness regarding repatriation, the report added.

Momen is now in Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj and will return Saturday.

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