KUTUPALONG – Bungling, distortion and diplomatic doublespeak have hollowed out the deal to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar, with refugees refusing to return to a homeland that remains perilously insecure.
“We will have to stay here for a long period, maybe generations,” Ali, a Rohingya refugee and father-of-six, told AFP from the Kutupalong mega-camp on Bangladesh’s side of the border.
In November, Myanmar agreed to take back around 750,000 Rohingya from Bangladesh, which hosts around one million of the Muslim minority driven out by waves of state violence stretching back to 1978.
Yet so far, Myanmar has signed off just 675 names from a Bangladeshi list of 8,000 refugees, citing discrepancies in the verification forms proving their residency in Rakhine state.
Months have elapsed, but no one has crossed back under the deal.
A family of five was “repatriated” over the weekend from a wedge of no-man’s land between the neighbours. Their return was swiftly pilloried as a PR stunt by rights groups and labelled “not meaningful” by Bangladesh’s home minister.
“Whatever we say, they (Myanmar) agree,” Mr Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP. “But they have not been able to create grounds for trust that they will take back these people.”
Under pressure, Myanmar agreed to take back those who can prove prior residence. Bangladesh wants swift, large-scale returns to ease pressure on the camps in its Cox’s Bazar district and salve domestic disquiet that one of Asia’s poorest countries is saddled with a huge refugee crisis.
Yet the refugees listed by Dhaka do not even know they have been volunteered to return to a country where they allege widespread atrocities.
“We did not try to ascertain approval from them,” a senior Bangladesh official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Dhaka has also muddied its side of the bargain. Under the repatriation agreement, the head of each Rohingya family must list the address of his or her father, mother and spouse in Myanmar.
But those details were inexplicably omitted from the forms submitted to Myanmar, the official told AFP. With no new names planned for scrutiny, the process is at a standstill.
For the Rohingya, return is the ultimate aim but only on condition of guaranteed safety and – crucially – citizenship, a red line to Myanmar authorities who stripped them of that status in 1982.
With the monsoon looming they are bedding in for the long haul. The makeshift Kutupalong mega-camp is taking on permanent features as hulking drainage pipes are dug into hillsides and bamboo shacks are upgraded with concrete.
But Bangladesh does not publicly air long-term settlement in its camps as an option. Dhaka has drawn an outcry by threatening to move up to 100,000 people to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
It says its biometric register of a million refugees should clear the way for large-scale returns, if the urgency is matched by the other side.
But Myanmar’s sincerity is in shreds. On a first visit to the camps last week, a Myanmar official implored Rohingya to return to a “changed” country, where destroyed villages are being rebuilt and work awaits.
“Please come back first … and taste it. Then, if you all feel satisfied, more can return,” Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye told Rohingya leaders.
But with villages razed, choking controls on movement in place and communal hatred still sharp, the UN says conditions inside Rakhine “are not conducive” for repatriation.
Refugees are also well versed in the machinations of Myanmar’s bureaucracy, after generations trapped on a carousel of forced exile and short-lived return.
“We won’t go back without citizenship and security … there’s no point, they will force us out again,” said Mohammad Sadek, 24, a resident of Kutupalong.
The identity card offered to returning Rohingya calls them “Bengalis” – in effect making holders complicit in renouncing their own ancestral claims in Rakhine.
Myanmar will likely allow “a token number” to return, says Francis Wade author of “Myanmar’s Enemy Within”. But “the vast majority of Rohingya in the camps will likely live out their days there… as will their children”.
“Camps here, camps there”
In the impasse, Myanmar’s army has been busy. Bulldozers have levelled the remains of hundreds of Rohingya villages, while transit centres and “temporary” camps for returnees have sprung up.
The army has added new bases while Rakhine Buddhists are being lured to the far north to rebalance the state’s demography.
Independent access to northern Rakhine remains impossible.
Somewhere between 400,000-500,000 Rohingya are left in Myanmar. Of those, around a quarter languish in IDP camps in from previous rounds of violence.
“We won’t go back to live in camps there,” said Rohingya refugee Mohammad Ihaya, 23. “It’s better to be in camps here.”