Rohingya Refugees, Observers Question Bangladesh’s Repatriation Deal with Myanmar

Retired Bangladeshi diplomats, refugees and opposition leaders cast doubt Monday on the implementation of a new agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since October 2016.

Reactions from a cross-section of the Bangladeshi society came after officials in Dhaka revealed details of the agreement, which stipulates that the two countries will work together to start the voluntary repatriation process within two months from Nov. 23, the day they signed the document in Naypyidaw.

“We want to go back to our homeland Arakan if our security and safety are ensured,” Mohammad Nur, general secretary of the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district that houses about 300,000 Rohingya refugees, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Arakan is the old name for Rakhine state.

The agreement does not identify the Rohingya by their ethnic group’s name and covers only about 700,000 members of the minority who escaped to southeastern Bangladesh in two waves since late last year, including more than 620,000 who fled from an outbreak of violence in Rakhine in late August 2017.

Another 300,000 or so refugees, who fled earlier cycles of violence, are sheltering across the border in Bangladesh.

Buddhist majority Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country’s official ethnic groups. It has denied the group citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.

“We, the Rohingya, must be recognized as one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar and our citizenship must be given back,” Nur said.

Mustafa Kamal, a former Bangladeshi foreign secretary, questioned whether the bilateral agreement could ensure the safety of refugees who opt to return to Myanmar.

“The agreement was signed in line with the demands of Myanmar,” he told BenarNews. “This agreement cannot ensure the safety, security and dignity of the Rohingya. So, I think hardly any Rohingya would go back.”

Only U.N. peacekeepers could ensure the security of returning refugees, he said.

“Bangladesh has made a mistake by agreeing to resolve the problem bilaterally. We should have internationalized the issue. The agreement reflected the desire of Myanmar, not Bangladesh,” Kamal added.

The United States and the United Nations have accused members of Myanmar’s military of carrying out ethnic cleansing after launching a brutal counter-offensive at the end of August, when Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents attacked police and army posts in Rakhine.

Human rights groups had documented cases of rape, killing and burning of Rohingya homes and villages in Rakhine.

Terms of deal

The signed memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and Myanmar, a copy of which was obtained by BenarNews, does not state a deadline for finishing the repatriation process. It’s also unclear how many refugees would want to return after fleeing from the violence.

The document states there will be no legal consequences for refugees who decide to return to Myanmar unless they were involved with ARSA insurgents who were labeled as “terrorists” in the agreement.

“Myanmar will not criminalize (prosecute or penalize) returnees for illegal exit and return unless there are specific involvement in terrorist or criminal activities,” the document said.

The agreement also required the refugees to show proof of past residence in Myanmar.

But, according to Rohingya activists, documents kept by many refugees were burned in their houses when they fled.

‘The reality is different’

On Saturday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali said the returnees would live in temporary shelters in Myanmar for a short time. He did not provide details.

“The agreement has protected Bangladesh’s interests. We are happy with it,” he told a news conference. “The main issue is Myanmar has agreed to take its nationals back.”

Ali said the two sides had also agreed to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to participate in the repatriation process.

But Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told CNN on Monday that the U.N. agency had not been consulted about the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, even though the memorandum calls for significant UNHCR involvement.

Humayun Kabir, a former Bangladesh ambassador to the United States, questioned Ali’s claim that the repatriation deal would serve Dhaka’s interests.

“We can expect that the Rohingya would go back. But the reality is different. Their houses were burned down. Their women were killed and raped by the military and the Buddhist groups,” said Kabir, who is now vice president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, a private think-tank.

“The Rohingya are unlikely to go back, unless there were guarantees from the international community,” Kabir told BenarNews.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary-general of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, agreed that the repatriation deal was skewed in favor of Myanmar’s interests.

“We are too upset. … How much will they [Rohingya] have to go back? We do not know whether they would be safe in Myanmar, and would not be the victims of genocide again,” he said.

Anas Madani, the likely future leader of the conservative Muslim group Hefazat-e-Islam, told BenarNews that its members would like to see the Rohingya Muslims go back to Myanmar.

“But their safety and security must be ensured. Their government, with the support from the international community, must work out a mechanism to ensure the safety and security of our Rohingya brothers,” he said.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, have described the bilateral agreement as a “public relations stunt.”

“Six hundred twenty thousand Rohingya refugees have only just escaped one of the most brutal cases of mass persecution in recent times,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The idea that Burma will now welcome them back to their smoldering villages with open arms is laughable.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.