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Experts voice concerns over Rohingya repatriation deal

By Mutasim Billah and Sorwar Alam
December 9, 2017

Repatriation deal for displaced Rohingya, fleeing violent crackdown in Myanmar, is designed for failure, warn experts

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- In the wake of Bangladesh and Myanmar signing a deal to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, most experts see "zero probability" that the deal will be implemented.

The bilateral deal, signed this Nov. 23, stipulates some nearly impossible conditions for the verification of the residency of the people the agreement calls "displaced persons from Myanmar" instead of their widely known ethnic identity of Rohingya. 

C.R. Abrar, coordinator of the Dhaka-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RAMMRU), told Anadolu Agency that the agreement was rubbish, as by signing the deal Myanmar only aimed to ease the international pressure on it.

Abrar, one of the most prominent experts in Bangladesh on the Rohingya, said the agreement had “many limitations”.

“There is no way to involve a third party to identify refugees, according to the pact.”

Some sections of the deal would make repatriation impossible, according to him.

“Because all the documents the Rohingya had were taken by Myanmar by force when they fled persecution, and there was no reason to carry the documents under the [dire] circumstances when they had to flee genocide,” he said.

And even if the Rohingya show the documents claiming their residency, Myanmar’s government has the right to reject anyone it wants, according to Abrar.

He added: “We’ve learned that Myanmar’s government has changed the official names of many villages and residential areas in Rakhine state. If the Rohingya mention the name of a village or the city, in light of this it’s doubtful they will be accepted.”

Although Rohingya refugees should willingly return to their homeland, he said: “I see no reason that they will go back.”

“I think this deal is pure rubbish. It will be used by Myanmar’s government as a defense against international criticism.”

He said the deal says nothing about including human rights groups and NGOs providing humanitarian assistance to the repatriation process.

The agreement only envisages that the two governments "will duly coordinate with the UNHCR,” the UN refugee agency, if needed. 

"It’s been said that the returning Rohingya would be held in camps for a short period of time but there’s no fixed duration.

“I don’t think there’s any section in this agreement that protects the Rohingya’s rights, and that's why I don’t think they'll go back."

No provisions for monitoring the process

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

Violence erupted on Aug. 25, forcing over 620,000 Rohingya to cross from Myanmar's western state of Rakhine into Bangladesh, according to the UN.

The refugees are fleeing a military operation in which security forces and Buddhist mobs have killed men, women and children, looted homes, and torched Rohingya villages. According to Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hasan Mahmood Ali, around 3,000 Rohingya have been killed in the crackdown.

M. Humayun Kabir, Bangladesh’s former ambassador to the U.S., said that many issues on the repatriation have yet to be fixed.

"This is only the initial phase of the agreement. Many more things remain to be done. We have around a month-and-a-half" before implementing the deal, he said.

“Actually, the articles of the agreement are referred to as guiding principles, [and] a joint working group will be created. Then I think there will be a chance to talk about documentation. We can mention to them that if we already registered Rohingya refugees this can be used as a document. If it can be done, then the process will be easy,” he said.

Under the Nov. 23 agreement, the only documents acceptable as valid for proving Rohingya residency in Myanmar are “copies of documents issued in Myanmar indicating their residence in Myanmar, such as old and expired citizenship identity cards / National Registration cards / Temporary Registration cards (White cards) and any other documents issued by relevant Myanmar authorities; or Other documents or information indicating their residence in Myanmar, such as addresses, reference to household or business ownership document, school attendance, or any other relevant particulars and information.”

Kabir agreed that there are no provisions for monitoring the repatriation process.

Though the deal emphasizes "the need for sustainable and durable solutions … [for a] process of voluntary return in safety, security, and dignity with options for recommencing livelihoods, after verification that the returnees have been residents of Myanmar," both the experts voiced their concerns over this.

“If the Rohingya can’t be assured that they are safe, then they won’t go,” said Kabir.

But he also praised the deal as a big achievement for Bangladesh, as the Myanmar government had to sit at the negotiating table with Bangladesh and agree to sign the deal due to constant pressure from the international community.

“I think now Myanmar also feels pressure [from the international community], that’s why they agreed to sign the deal,” he said, adding that the international community should continue its pressure on Yangon.

“We would like to be optimistic about this agreement, but at the same time we will remain conscious until it is implemented,” he said. 

‘China pushed for the deal’

Afsan Chowdhury, a veteran journalist and researcher in Bangladesh, told Anadolu Agency that China was the main player in the deal.

He underlined that both Bangladesh and Myanmar have multibillion-dollar financial ties with China.

“The deal was done due to China's influence,” Chowdhury said. 

“In line with China's choice, we made a bilateral agreement instead of multilateral agreements. China has a huge influence on both countries. Now it’s able to control everything…

“Bangladesh gets ultra-low-interest loans from China, and that’s why China has an implicit influence. I’m not very optimistic about this bilateral agreement. Nobody is optimistic.”

He highlighted that China was the first country in the world to welcome the agreement.

Ro Nay San Lwin, a European-based Rohingya activist, told Anadolu Agency that repatriation was “practically impossible”.

Documentation and verification would be main issues of the process, as the Rohingya would be unable to present the required documents since Myanmar has long since stopped providing Rohingya any official citizenship documents.

“There are many ways to prove the residency status of the people who fled to Bangladesh. The most important is that UN organizations must be involved in this repatriation,” Lwin explained. 

“Bangladesh must be very strong when they deal with Myanmar. They should not accept any burden imposed by Myanmar. If they believe anyone is from Myanmar, they have to pressure Myanmar to take them back.”

He added: "At a special session of the UNHRC held Tuesday in Geneva, Myanmar representative Htin Lynn said there will be no camps. But we still need to see the official announcement from Myanmar’s government.

“No Rohingya will go back home unless their citizenship and basic human rights are guaranteed by Myanmar’s government.” 

Lwin said that Rohingya survivors will go back to Myanmar "only if their houses are rebuilt and ready in their original villages, they are offered full citizenship cards at the entry points, and are guaranteed that they would not be persecuted again".

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