By THOMAS KEAN and CLARE HAMMOND | FRONTIER
YANGON — The United Nations and Rohingya refugees have raised concerns about a surprise effort by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate up to 3,450 refugees starting from August 22, citing a short timeline and a lack of transparency.
A UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson said the agency on Tuesday expects to begin surveying the intentions of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who have been cleared for repatriation – just two days before the planned repatriation is expected to begin.
The Bangladesh government provided the United Nations with a list of 3,450 Rohingya refugees who have been cleared for repatriation by Myanmar on the evening of August 8. Myanmar approved the names from more than 22,000 provided by Bangladesh. It is not clear how the governments prepared the lists.
UN officials were given just a two-week window to survey the refugees who have been cleared for repatriation, to find out whether they want to return to Myanmar, according to internal emails seen by Frontier. But this window fell over the Eid al-Adha holiday, limiting the availability of both UN and Bangladesh government staff.
Frontier also understands that the list of cleared refugees was transmitted in hard copy only and without the registration numbers typically used to identify individuals and families in the camps, and included duplications of names and variations in spelling.
Bangladesh designated its Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission to lead the process of sharing information with refugees, but commissioner Mr Mohammad Abul Kalam was away from work until August 18 due to a medical procedure.
A meeting between UNHCR, the RRRC and the heads of the refugee camps was scheduled for August 18, according to internal emails seen by Frontier.
“The proposed timeline does present a challenge,” Ms Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR spokeswoman based in Bangkok said in an emailed response to questions on August 18.
“UNHCR is working intensively to review the lists forwarded to the Government of Bangladesh by the Government of Myanmar. We are also making practical preparations to reach out to the refugee community, following the government’s lead. These efforts are now underway.”
UNHCR began sharing information with refugees last week, distributing a two-page document in the camps in three languages.
Refugees cleared for return would have the opportunity to meet with UNHCR and express their wish to return, or not, the document said.
Conditions not in place
While UNHCR will survey the intention of refugees, it will not be involved in the physical repatriation of any who decide to return on August 22.
The agency is not a party to the repatriation memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh in Myanmar, but also does not deem conditions in Myanmar to be conducive to repatriation taking place.
Gluck of UNHCR told Frontier that for the refugee agency to have a role in facilitating returns, conditions must first be in place for voluntary, safe and dignified return and the physical, legal, and material safety of returnees.
“This includes UNHCR’s ability to monitor the return and reintegration of returnees,” she said.
Mr Marin Din Kajdomcaj, head of operations for UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, told Frontier earlier this month that conditions in Myanmar are not yet in place for Rohingya refugees to return.
“The bottom line is, clearly, as this moment we don’t see the conditions for return,” he said.
Gluck reiterated this position on August 18, but said the UNCHR respected the right of individual refugees to return if they wished, and would provide support where it could.
A previous attempt in November 2018 to return 2,260 Rohingya to Myanmar came to nothing, after those identified for return refused to leave Bangladesh, amid refugee-led protests in the camps.
Restrictions on UNHCR’s access to parts of northern Rakhine State prevent the agency from fully assessing the conditions, Gluck told Frontier.
“The security situation in these areas is a factor constraining access, which speaks directly to the current environment and conditions for return in these parts of Rakhine State,” she said.
The Tatmadaw has been fighting the Arakan Army in central and northern Rakhine State since January 4, in a conflict that has displaced about 60,000 people, according to figures released by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress. The number of civilian casualties from this conflict is difficult to independently verify due to restrictions on access to the area and an internet blackout imposed in nine townships since June 21.
Gluck said that the root causes of displacement, as highlighted in the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, also needed to be addressed so that refugees have confidence that their return can be dignified and sustainable.
More than 128,000 Muslims – mostly Rohingya, but some of Kaman ethnicity – remain confined to camps in central Rakhine, unable to make trips outside without government permission, cut off from most livelihood and educational opportunities, and dependent on aid from international agencies for their survival.
“The situation in Rakhine State is not safe for returns. There is still chronic persecution and Rohingya lack access to education, livelihoods, freedom of movement and basic security,” said Mr John Quinley, human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.
“The same military that led a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya is supposed to now be the ones protecting them upon return. This is deeply problematic and dangerous.”
A July study by researchers in Australia based on open source data and satellite analysis indicated that Myanmar has made minimal preparations for the return of refugees.
Frontier was unable to reach Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday, and the Embassy of Bangladesh in Yangon declined to comment.
A broken promise
On July 27 and 28, a Myanmar government delegation led by Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary U Myint Thu, and five members of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations emergency response team held talks with Rohingya leaders in the camps.
They agreed during the talks to hold a dialogue on the repatriation conditions set out by Rohingya leaders within two months.
Demands include the restoration of citizenship and its attendant rights, the right of refugees to return to their places of origin, and the involvement of UNHCR in the repatriation process.
While some Rohingya refugees who met the delegation said they doubted Myanmar’s sincerity, others told Frontier after the talks that they hoped the dialogue would lead to a solution.
Mr Mohib Ullah, the leader of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights told Frontier on August 4 that he expected pressure from ASEAN, the US and the EU would force Myanmar to negotiate.
“We are not staying a long time in these places,” he said, referring to the camps. “We are preparing for dialogue with Myanmar, and then we will go back.”
The UNHCR’s Kajdomcaj was also enthusiastic about the initial talks.
“We have seen both parties very, very interested in continuing the dialogue, and the support of the UN is very strong in seeing refugees as part of the solution,” he said on August 5.
On August 18, Rohingya youth leader Mr Mohammed Nowkhim said that Myanmar and ASEAN had broken their promise.
They only held talks with the Rohingya to relieve international pressure, he said, while the repatriation agreement was proof that Myanmar didn’t want to solve the issue.
Rohingya refugees wanted to go home as soon as possible, he added, but only after discussing the terms with the Myanmar government. Until then, he said, nobody would go voluntarily.
“There will be no repatriation without talking to us,” he said.
Correction, August 22: This article has been amended to attribute the number of people displaced by conflict between the Tatmadaw and the AA to figures released by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.