Rohingya sceptical of Myanmar refugee return overture

Sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh are home to around a million Rohingya – Copyright AFP/File Munir uz Zaman

Rohingya refugees said they doubted Myanmar was offering a genuine return to their homeland, after Wednesday’s conclusion of an official visit to Bangladesh ostensibly aimed at jumpstarting a stalled repatriation agreement.

A delegation of 17 officials from Myanmar’s military regime met with around 480 refugees over the past week in a process brokered by China and partly facilitated by the United Nations.

Bangladeshi authorities told AFP they were hopeful that a refugee return could begin soon, more than five years after a brutal military crackdown drove immense numbers of Rohingya into their country.

But members of the persecuted minority interviewed by the Myanmar delegation told AFP that none of their queries on safety or recognition of their citizenship had been answered.

“They used to treat us badly there. I asked whether we would be able to live a normal life there, but then they stopped me,” Shamsun Nahar, a 40-year-old Rohingya woman, told AFP.

“They did not want any more questions,” she added. “I don’t think they will take us to Myanmar. If they do, they won’t give us any rights.”

Myanmar’s delegation left Wednesday after a week in the sprawling refugee camps home to around a million Rohingya.

The team were officially there to assess refugees for potential return, based partly on whether they could prove their residence in the country before the 2017 crackdown.

But another refugee interviewed by the visitors said documentation proving his residency was treated with scepticism.

“I provided all the documents, they said ‘hmm’,” Soyod Hossain, 50, told AFP. “I don’t think they believe that our documents were genuine.”

The Rohingya are widely viewed in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh, despite roots in the country stretching back centuries, and are stateless after Myanmar ceased recognising their citizenship in 2015.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has dismissed the Rohingya identity as “imaginary”, was head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown.

That year’s violence is now subject to a genocide investigation, with the International Court of Justice probing allegations of rape, murder and arson against entire Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s security forces.

The Arakan Rohingya National Alliance, a prominent Rohingya diaspora group, last week accused Myanmar of planning to orchestrate a “token” return of refugees to avoid the court’s censure.

The UN refugee agency said once again Sunday that conditions in Myanmar remained unsuitable for the “sustainable return” of Rohingya refugees.

But civil society groups have criticised the agency for facilitating the transport of Myanmar officials into Bangladesh last week as part of the return scheme.

– ‘We don’t have any option’ –

A repatriation plan was first agreed upon soon after the 2017 crackdown but failed to make any significant headway, partly over concerns the Rohingya would not be safe if they returned.

Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner Mizanur Rahman said his country was hopeful that refugee returns would start soon, with more clarity on timing to come next week.

“We don’t have any option other than repatriation. But the whole process is complex,” Rahman told AFP.

China is mediating between both countries on the renewed repatriation push and Beijing’s ambassador to Dhaka, Yao Wen, also told reporters last week that repatriation would start “very soon”.

Myanmar’s state media has so far not reported on the delegation’s visit to Bangladesh. 

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