Rohingya repatriation will start in two months, Bangladesh says after deal with Myanmar

Repatriation of the hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslims, who fled a recent army crackdown in Myanmar, will start in two months, Bangladesh says following an agreement with its neighbour.

Published : 23 Nov 2017, 08:52 AM
Updated : 23 Nov 2017, 05:34 PM

A statement from the foreign ministry said an 'arrangement' was signed on Thursday in Myanmar capital Naypyitaw paving the way for the safe return of over 600,000 Rohingyas who crossed the border into Bangladesh in the last three months.

"The 'Arrangement' stipulates that the return shall commence within two months," it reads.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali and Myanmar Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor U Kyaw Tint Swe signed the deal.

This is the ‘first step’, Ali told Dhaka-based Somoy TV after the signing. The two countries will now have to work on the ‘next steps’, he said.

“Now we must begin our work. All the details are in this. We will give details once we return to Dhaka.”

The Bangladesh government statement says a 'joint working group' will be formed in three weeks and "a specific bilateral instrument (physical arrangement) for repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner."

On being asked by the Somoy TV reporter, the Bangladesh foreign minister said, "The thing now is to start this process. Homes have been burnt to the ground there (in Rakhine), which need to be rebuilt."

An official of Myanmar's ministry of labour, immigration and population official said they will start the process 'as soon as possible.'

"We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us," Permanent Secretary Myint Kyaing told Reuters, referring to registration forms the Rohingya must complete with personal details before repatriation.

A statement by the country's Ministry of the Office of the State Counsellor said 'an agreement was reached on the Arrangement' and that both sides 'concurred' it should be signed as soon as possible.

It said the arrangement is based on the 1992 Joint Statement with Bangladesh, which contains "the general guiding principles and policy arrangements to systematically verify and receive the displaced persons from Rakhine State".

Dhaka, however, says the decades-old agreement is not realistic anymore as the situation has since changed significantly.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the Rakhine state in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar since security forces responded to Rohingya militants' attacks on Aug 25 by launching a crackdown.

The UN has branded the military operation as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, a term which the United States used on Wednesday to describe it.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for what he called "horrendous atrocities".

"The situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya," he said in a statement on Wednesday, using the term he avoided when visiting Myanmar last week.

Bangladesh initially kept its border closed after violence broke out in late August in Rakhine, but later opened it to Rohingyas on humanitarian grounds.

It was already home to 400,000 Rohingya refugees over the last few decades before the latest exodus began.

In 1992, Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement with the then military regime of Myanmar, following which 236,599 Rohingyas returned to their homeland. But another 2,415 were denied entry even after meeting the criteria under the arrangement.

Last month, Foreign Minister Ali said the previous arrangement will not work now as the current situation is 'entirely different' and verifying Rohingyas based on their residence in Rakhine is not 'realistic' anymore.

Aid agencies and rights bodies, however, have expressed concerns over return of Rohingyas to Myammar without a guarantee for their safety.

On Thursday, Amnesty International said they had doubts about a safe return while "a system of apartheid remains" in Myanmar.

In a statement, the London-based group said it hopes those who do not want to go back are not forced to do so.

“While precise details of this deal have not yet been revealed, talk of returns is clearly premature at a time when Rohingya refugees continue to trickle into Bangladesh on an almost daily basis as they flee ethnic cleansing in Myanmar," the statement quoted its Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights Charmain Mohamed.