By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
A Bangladesh and Myanmar plan to begin repatriating some 2,000 Rohingya refugees later this month was in doubt Friday, as some on the list said they didn’t want to go back and 42 NGOs expressed collective concern about potential dangers awaiting returnees at home.
A senior Bangladeshi government official in Dhaka said no one would be pressured to leave against their will under the process, which both countries have insisted would be voluntary. But Bangladesh’s government has not yet consulted refugees whose names were on the list of those slated for repatriation, he also said when questioned about this late Friday.
“We will not force them to return. The repatriation will be voluntary,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation, told BenarNews.
Bangladesh has identified the potential returnees and their families, Kalam said, “but we are yet to ask them whether they would go back.”
“We will start seeking their opinion soon,” he said, without giving any timeframe.
Refugees have recounted widespread stories of killings, sexual assault and burning of villages as Myanmar security forces launched counter-insurgency operations last year in Rakhine state, violently expelling more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
Another Bangladeshi official from the disaster management ministry said Bangladesh would not use force to repatriate the refugees, many of whom live in squalid refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
“If we forcefully send them, either Myanmar will push them back again or they will sneak in again. In that case, we cannot send them [away],” he told BenarNews.
“Bangladesh wants a permanent solution to the Rohingya problem,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Friday, Reuters news agency reported that it had identified and interviewed more than 20 of the more than 2,000 Rohingya refugees on a list of people that Myanmar had agreed to take back in a first batch of refugees slated for repatriation under a bilateral agreement.
“I can hardly sleep at night for fear of getting forcibly repatriated. Since the time I heard that my name is on the list I can’t even eat,” Nurul Amin, a Rohingya Muslim living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, told Reuters.
Amin, 35, who has four daughters, a wife and sister with him in the Jamtoli Camp, gave the interview days after learning that he and his family would be among the refugees who could be repatriated.
Some identified as ‘terrorists’
Although the list has not been released to the public or the news media, Myanmar officials issued statements earlier this week saying that dozens of Rohingya who were being considered for repatriation had been “involved in terrorism.”
Soe Han, director general of the ASEAN Affairs Department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Thursday that 54 of 6,472 Rohingya on the list had been identified for their “terrorism” links. The official did not elaborate or provide evidence on the alleged terror activities. RFA is a sister entity of BenarNews.
“Myanmar sent the list of these people involved in terrorism to Bangladesh and has asked it to take action against them, but nothing has happened yet,” he said, adding that the state could not reveal any information about them for security or diplomatic reasons.
“If they are sent back to Myanmar, we have to take action against them according to the law,” he said.
Kalam confirmed to BenarNews on Friday that Myanmar had alleged that 54 of the potential Rohingya returnees were “terrorists.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal on Nov. 23 last year and formed a 30-member joint working group (JWG) to hammer out repatriation details.
“[The Myanmar side] pointed out that the list of the refugees contained some ‘terrorists,’” Munim Hassan, a joint secretary of the security services division at the home ministry, told BenarNews, referring to the last JWG meeting that took place in Dhaka on Oct. 30.
“We told them at the third joint working group meeting that ‘the persons whom you called terrorists’ have not committed any crime in Bangladesh. So, how can we take action against them?” he said.
NGOs seek suspension of planned repatriation
In recent weeks, officials from the two nations said the large-scale return of the Rohingya Muslims would push ahead, with Myint Khaing, the Maungdaw township administrator in northern Rakhine, telling Agence France-Presse that Nov. 15 would be the estimated repatriation start date. More than 2,200 people in total would return at a rate of 150 per day.
The Myanmar official seemed unsure if the repatriation would go ahead, AFP said.
The potential start of repatriation prompted an outcry Friday from 42 NGOs, which expressed “deep concern” as they emphasized that the refugees were “terrified” about leaving their makeshift shelters in Bangladesh.
“Refugees have consistently told us that they want to return to their own homes and places of origin, or to places of their choice. They want guarantees that they can enjoy equal rights and citizenship,” the non-governmental organizations, aid agencies and civil society groups said in a joint statement issued from Oxfam International’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“They want assurances that the extreme human rights violations they have suffered will stop, and those responsible for the violence they fled will be brought to justice,” the statement said.
“Most of all, refugees tell us that they are afraid,” it said. “They are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned to Myanmar now.”
Save the Children and World Vision were among that groups that signed the statement, which came days after the U.N.’s human rights investigator on Myanmar urged Dhaka to drop the repatriation plan, warning that Rohingya still faced a high risk of persecution in Myanmar.
Bangladesh rejects Canadian offer
Also on Friday, Bangladesh rejected an offer by Canada to take in a limited number of Rohingya refugees, including women who were raped, Reuters said, quoting Canadian officials.
The offer was made in May when Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh in May.
A foreign ministry official told BenarNews that Dhaka was taking a cautious stance about the Canadian offer, as they believe it could complicate the repatriation process.