By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh has the necessary forms to begin the process of repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Myanmar and will start collecting data next week, the nation’s refugee relief commissioner told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said he had received the forms earlier this week and would lead a committee collecting the information required by Myanmar.
In late November, the two neighboring nations agreed to begin the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to their home state of Rakhine, in Myanmar, by Jan. 22.
“Hopefully, we can start collecting data sought in the repatriation form beginning after Sunday,” Kalam said.
His office will employ staff to collect the data, he said, adding that the forms would not be distributed among the refugees.
“We have already formed a nine-member technical committee to collect the data about the potential returnees. The committee includes members from the home ministry, disaster management ministry, bureau of statics and other relevant departments of the government,” said Kalam, leader of the technical committee.
“We maintain a database of the Myanmar nationals entering Bangladesh. We will match the data collected with the database before handing the filled forms over to the Myanmar,” he said.
Repatriation will begin after the Myanmar government verifies data including name, age, gender, parents, children and home village. Bangladesh officials expect to hand over about 100,000 Rohingya in the first phase.
Kalam responded to questions from BenarNews after a Myanmar official said that his government was waiting for Bangladesh to send the completed forms to start the verification process before repatriation can begin.
“We have sent the forms for the refugees to fill out, but we haven’t received any of the [completed] ones from Bangladesh yet,” Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population under Myanmar’s civilian-led government, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, this week.
“We are ready to accept them back,” he added. “We will begin doing so on the day we receive the forms from Bangladesh.”
On Nov. 23, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed the agreement stipulating that repatriation would begin within two months. At that time, the governments agreed to form a 30-member joint working group, headed by their foreign secretaries, to oversee the process.
The working group has not held its first meeting.
Myanmar has proposed holding it on Jan. 9, but Bangladesh officials have not responded to the proposal, a Bangladesh foreign ministry official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, told BenarNews that the first meeting could take place by Jan. 15, a week before the first Rohingya are due to leave for Myanmar.
“The joint working group meeting can take place either in Bangladesh or Myanmar,” Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury, the director general in-charge of the Southeast Asia desk at the foreign ministry, told BenarNews.
More than 655,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh since Aug. 25, 2017, amid a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military that followed coordinated attacks carried out by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents on security posts in Rakhine state.
Human rights groups and Rohingya refugees have accused Myanmar military personnel and civilian militia of committing widespread atrocities against Rohingya civilians during the crackdown. The United Nations and United States have described the situation as “ethnic cleansing,” but Myanmar officials have denied that its forces committed atrocities.
The repatriation agreement includes tens of thousands of Rohingya who fled Myanmar following an outbreak in violence in October 2016 as well, driving the number of refugees who are eligible to return home to as many as 700,000.
In all, about one million Rohingya are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh, where they are mostly concentrated in refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district.
“Repatriation does not happen overnight; it is time consuming. We will provide Myanmar necessary data from here. They can return only when the Myanmar government gives green light after verification,” said Chowdhury, a member of the joint committee.
Abdul Masood, a Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh with his wife and three children late last year, told BenarNews that he would not return to Myanmar, and feared being forced to do so.
“If we are sent back, there is no hope for us. We will all be killed, or worse, tortured to death. Ask any Rohingya, and they will tell you they don’t want to go back, no matter the promises the Myanmar government makes regarding our safety,” Masood, 28, told BenarNews last week.
Curfew: ‘To ensure people’s safety’
Last week, Myanmar authorities announced they would process returning refugees during daylight hours only because of an extended curfew in the Rakhine state.
Returning refugees who will be processed at two reception centers in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages must adhere to the curfew, meaning they cannot go out after 6 p.m., Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister in-charge of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told RFA.
“Authorities did it to ensure people’s safety,” he said.
Kalam, the refugee relief commissioner in Bangladesh, told BenarNews that his government likely would not oppose the curfew enforced on the other side of the border.
“The repatriation is our focus, no matter whether it takes place by day or at night. We will discuss the proposal at the joint working group and decide,” Kalam said.
Meanwhile, some Rohingya refugees expressed mixed views over the issue.
“I do not see any problem. Daytime is better. Risks of snake and insect bites are there. Besides, women and children may go missing at night,” Mohammad Hafez told BenarNews in a phone call from Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
A Rohingya who was repatriated at night in 1993 and asked to remain anonymous, gave a different opinion.
“Myanmar wants to limit the number of returnees. A lesser number of people will go if repatriation only takes place by daytime. This is their strategy to delay our return,” he told BenarNews.