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Bangladesh will not force Rohingyas to go back Myanmar: Foreign Minister

January 21, 2018

Bangladesh will not force the Rohingya refugees to go back to Myanmar, the foreign minister has said as the two countries signed agreements to start the repatriation process by Jan 23 despite international criticism.

“It will be voluntary. In all of our documents, [that Bangladesh, Myanmar signed] we have mentioned that it will be a voluntary return. We’ll not force them to go back,” AH Mahmood Ali told journalists after briefing Dhaka-based diplomats about the repatriation plan on Sunday.

But he would not give a specific date about when the first batch will start for the Rakhine State as the government does not want to draw media criticism if the deadline is missed.

Myanmar earlier announced the process will begin on Tuesday, two months into the signing of the first agreement on Nov 23.

“The process is on-going. I cannot put a specific day. You will see when it begins. If I give a date and then miss the deadline, then you [media] will say we could not [send them back in time],” he said.

Over 655,500 Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military cracked down in the northern part of Rakhine in response to militant attacks on security forces on Aug 25.

The United Nations described the operation as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya – an allegation Myanmar denies.

Myanmar authorities have said they were making final preparations to take back the first batch despite growing doubts about the plan among refugees and in the United Nations.

They will start receiving Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh at two reception centres and the temporary camp near Maungtaw starting on Tuesday and continuing over the next two years, under the agreement two countries signed this week.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed concern and said to ensure that the refugees are heard and their protection guaranteed in Bangladesh and on return in Myanmar, it is willing to be part of these discussions.

The foreign minister said Bangladesh side would incorporate UNHCR in the process and they are working to sign a MoU with the UN agency.

“We have sent them [UNHCR] the draft,” he said, adding that Myanmar is not willing to include UNHCR from their side, for now, instead they want to include Red Cross in the process.

The foreign minister told the diplomats Bangladesh has put its “best efforts” to ensure that the agreements facilitate “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return”.

Mahmood Ali referred to provisions of the agreements, such as Myanmar’s commitment to implement the report of the Kofi Annan Commission, non-discrimination and respect for international human rights instruments vis-à-vis the returnees, and engagement of international community in the resettlement of Rohingyas in the Rakhine State.

In order to ensure that the return is voluntary, he said, Bangladesh has incorporated provisions for involvement of the UNHCR and other relevant international organisations in the entire return process. 

He mentioned that Bangladesh tried “to create space for international actors in every phase of the return, resettlement and reintegration”.

Ali referred to the initiatives of India, China and Japan in developing resettlement facilities in the Rakhine State and encouraged the international community to offer similar help to Myanmar.

He particularly mentioned the European countries that have embassies in Myanmar to offer help to the authorities.

US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat termed Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts to send the Rohingya people back “amazing”, and said when she met the refugees in Cox’s Bazar, everybody wanted to go back.

“But they don’t want to go back to a dangerous situation again,” she told journalists, adding that during the briefing Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque “wanted us to stay with you and keep the pressure to resolve the situation in a way that Rohingyas are allowed to go to their country safely.”

“They don’t want to go back to uncertainty,” she said.

British High Commissioner Alison Blake appreciated the briefing and said as a partner of Bangladesh, they are going to continue work to support “so that safe and dignified return can take place when the conditions are right”.

She said at the briefing that “all of them wanted them to return in dignity, safety, sustainably, and voluntarily to their homes. 

“We believe what the Rohingya people want is getting the conditions right,” she said.

The foreign ministry later in a statement said ambassadors, high commissioners and representatives of 52 missions including the United States, UK, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Japan, Qatar, and EU engaged in “interactive” discussion with the foreign minister during the briefing on the practical questions related to sustainable return. 

Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque and other senior officials of the foreign ministry were also present.

The foreign minister urged the diplomats to continue their engagement with Myanmar for “effective” implementation of the return arrangements. 

The diplomats commended the people and government of Bangladesh, particularly Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for taking the courageous decision to shelter the persecuted Rohingyas and for managing a humanitarian situation of such magnitude so efficiently, according to the statement. 

They committed continued support towards achieving a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis.

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