We, the people of Bangladesh, can feel the pains of the Rohingyas who were forced to enter our territory leaving their own country. In 1971, we had experienced that situation when we had to leave our country and take shelter in India. We were able to return to our own lands once we made our country free from Pakistani occupation. But, in the case of Rohingyas, the scenario is not the same. They cannot fight against Myanmar to get back their lands. However, they have every right to go back to Myanmar and be settled there permanently as the citizens of Myanmar with honour and dignity. Bangladesh has been doing everything from the very beginning of the crisis by providing them shelter and taking all possible measures for their safe repatriation.
In the third Joint Woking Group (JWG) meeting held in Dhaka on 30 October 2018, the two parties agreed to start the repatriation of Rohingyas from mid-November (this month). At the first stage, Myanmar will take back 2,260 persons. In fact, these people got the clearance from the government of Myanmar. The Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Rehabilitation of Myanmar has also said in a press briefing at Naypyidaw that the repatriation would start from 15th November 2018.On 31 October, the visiting delegation, headed by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, went to Cox’s Bazar to visit the Rohingya shelter houses. During the visit of the Myanmar delegation, the Rohingyas raised their 6-point demand that included citizenship, security, return of their agricultural land, settlement on their own houses, and bringing of the perpetrators to justice. The Permanent Secretary of Myanmar assured them that he would place their demands to his government. The delegation also talked to the officials of the UN agencies, in addition to exchanging views with the Rohingya leaders.
In the eve of this development, the United Nations has said that the situation in the Rakhine state is not yet safe for the return of the Rohingyas. The UN fears that the Rohingyas will not be safe there, as they are still coming to Bangladesh. It would not be wise to send them unless and until a safe environment prevails there. It has also said that the UNHCR office in Dhaka is not aware of the decision taken by the two countries at the JWG meeting regarding beginning of the repatriation from 15th November. The UN thinks that it should be left to the Rohingyas to decide about their return to Myanmar on confirmation of a favourable environment there.
However, the question of involvement of the UNHCR has been cleared by Bangladesh. Following the MoU signed with the UNHCR, the government of Bangladesh has handed over the list of 2,260 people (485 families) to the UNHCR just after the JWG meeting. Now, it is the responsibilities of the UNHCR to verify whether the Rohingyas in the list are willing to return voluntarily to their ancestors’ lands or not. Bangladesh believes in voluntary repatriation and sincerely expects that the UNHCR would finalise the list of the Rohingyas willing to return voluntarily and the repatriation starts as scheduled.
The European Union (EU) has recently threatened to slap trade sanction on Myanmar. It has said that if Myanmar wants to continue to benefit from duty-free, quota-free access to the EU markets through Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, it must uphold and respect the principles enshrined in those conventions. There should be voluntary, safe and dignified return of Rohingya refugees staying in Bangladesh to their places of origin.
At its 18th session of the D-8 Council of Ministers held in Turkey on 3rd November 2018, it was decided to continue their support for the Rohingyas as well as the efforts of Bangladesh. Meanwhile, ASEAN MPs have requested to delay the repatriation process as the situation now in Rakhine is not conducive to repatriation. It is also learnt that the Rohingya issue would be raised at the ASEAN meeting to be held in Singapore next week. Very recently, the Foreign Minister of Singapore has also paid a visit to Bangladesh to see the condition of the Rohingyas.
There is no doubt that the repatriation should be a safe and sustainable repatriation. It means they should be recognised as the citizens of Myanmar, settled on their ancestors’ lands, provided all civil rights, etc. All UN agencies concerned should be there to monitor the entire process as well as post-repatriation situation until the Rohingyas have a comfortable environment. The Myanmar authority must co-operate with UN agencies. There is a demand for deployment of UN Peace Keepers in the Rohingya concentrated areas of Rakhine state. But, will Myanmar accept such arrangements?Myanmar’s Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation has indicated that they would take 150 persons per week to clear the first lot of 2,260 persons. That means, it will take about four months to complete the first batch. Is it a justified number? How long we have to wait to complete the entire repatriation process? They may think that we do not understand their motives behind this. The entire world knows what Myanmar is doing with the Rohingyas, who are their citizens and have equal rights to live there like others. By starting the repatriation process they may like to show the world community their sincerity in taking back the Rohingyas staying in Bangladesh so that the international pressure reduces. We should note it and keep our thrust on Myanmar to prepare the complete schedule for the repatriation of all Rohingyas fixing batch-wise numbers and dates.
One should acknowledge that it was not easy to force Myanmar to agree for the repatriation. Since signing of the MoU on the Rohingya repatriation last year, Myanmar has been dilly-dallying to start the repatriation. Now, as Myanmar has agreed to start the repatriation, let’s start. But it must be safe and that is the duty of everybody including the UN agencies. There should not be any compromise on that issue. We may think of the UN supervision, particularly the post-repatriation management. If there is any negligence from Bangladesh side, Myanmar would blame Bangladesh and may make the repatriation process more complex. Even, the repatriation might be uncertain. However, international community including UN agencies should not be given any chance to misunderstand us. In all our efforts, we should take with us all UN agencies concerned. On the other hand, Myanmar might try to make us agreed on some points or intentionally misguide us which might place Bangladesh in such a position against the international community. We must take note of that carefully. In any way, the international pressure on Myanmar should continue so that favourable environment is created in the Rakhine state and the repatriation is not interrupted. By any means, Myanmar should not be allowed trying to suspend or linger the process after taking back two or three groups of Rohingyas. However, we should keep in mind that the repatriation is voluntary.
Though we have very weak arguments to trust Myanmar that it will sincerely cooperate in repatriating the Rohingyas; but we can, at least, hope that the Rohingyas, who are going back to their ancestors’ lands, would find a secured life there in all respects. May this opening of door inspire and encourage the remaining Rohingyas to return to their places of origin and live there safely with proper respect and dignity.
The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary