YANGON — Myanmar’s government on Sunday insisted any delays to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees would be the fault of Bangladesh, just four days ahead of the controversial planned start date.
After repeated setbacks, the neighbouring countries declared that the first of more than 2,200 Rohingya Muslims would be repatriated on November 15, even though international NGOs and the United Nations have said conditions are not yet in place for a safe return.
More than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine State in a military crackdown in August last year.
Survivors brought with them testimony of widespread murder, rape, torture and arson and are fearful of going back to Rakhine State without guarantees of safety, freedom of movement and citizenship.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed the deal in November 2017 but the UN has repeatedly said that any repatriations must be “safe, dignified and voluntary”.
“We are ready,” declared social welfare minister U Win Myat Aye to reporters in Yangon on Sunday.
Provisions at a transit camp will include clothes and food rations, and the refugees will also be provided with money to help them rebuild their homes in one of 42 locations, he added.
But he was unable to confirm who would be in the first group to return, insisting that it was down to Bangladesh to make sure they meet the deadline this week.
“It depends on the other country [Bangladesh] if the repatriations will start on 15 November,” he said.
Myanmar on Saturday denied allegations of a cross-border shooting that raised tensions with Bangladesh ahead of the scheduled start date.
The fresh diplomatic row started after a Bangladesh border guard official said that a 15-year-old Rohingya refugee was shot in the elbow on November 4 while grazing cows after multiple rounds were fired from a security post across the demarcation line.
Bangladesh summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to lodge a protest but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government says it has looked into the allegation and denies it ever happened.
“The Myanmar ambassador promptly contacted the responsible officials from the Myanmar Border Guard, who confirmed that no shooting incident had taken place,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is overseen by Aung San Suu Kyi, said in a statement late Saturday.
Myanmar says it was involved in coordinated patrols at the time of the alleged incident with Bangladeshi forces along the Naf River that separates the two countries, and that none of their counterparts mentioned the claim.
“A formal protest through diplomatic channels based on dubious reports, as took place in this case, does not serve any useful purpose,” the ministry added.
A Bangladesh foreign ministry official in Dhaka said while they would be moving forward with the repatriation on November 15 as planned, determining that each refugee return was voluntary would be the responsibility of the UN’s refugee agency.
UNHCR spokesman Mr Firas Al-Khateeb confirmed this, but added that it had not yet fully resolved the issue despite the tight timeframe.
“[The Bangladesh government] asked us officially to assess the voluntariness of the refugees,” he said. “But we have not concluded this process yet.”
Both governments have been pushing ahead with this first large-scale repatriation effort, pledging to bring back a total of 2,251 Rohingya at the rate of 150 individuals a day.
This has prompted criticism from a group of 42 aid agencies — including Oxfam, WorldVision and Save the Children — who say that it would be dangerous for them.
“[The refugees] are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned to Myanmar now, and distressed by the lack of information they have received,” the group of 42 aid agencies and civil society groups said in a statement Friday.
“They fled to Bangladesh to seek safety and they are very grateful to the Government of Bangladesh for giving them a safe haven.”
The groups said refugees fear living in enclosed settlements like the one in central Rakhine State, where more than 120,000 Rohingya have been confined to camps for six years since intercommunal violence erupted in the region in 2012.
UN investigators have called for the country’s top military brass to be prosecuted for genocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over last year’s crackdown.
Myanmar vehemently rejects the court’s jurisdiction over the country and insists the military campaign was justified to defend itself against Rohingya terrorists.
The UN fact-finding team also said that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government — in a power-sharing agreement with the military — were complicit in the atrocities against the Rohingya through their “acts and omissions”.