Return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar delayed

Doubts hang over the return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar - originally slated to start today - amid warnings that conditions remain unstable some five months after almost 700,000 Rohingya fled the country's Rakhine state.

The Muslim minority escaped to Bangladesh after an Aug 25 militant attack triggered a military crackdown which has been described by the United Nations as "ethnic cleansing".

While both countries have agreed to begin the voluntary repatriation today over the next two years, Bangladesh told Reuters yesterday that the process will be delayed.

"There are many things remaining," said Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner Abul Kalam. "The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps are remaining."

The Bangladesh statement came amid warnings that conditions in Rakhine state, the site of deadly communal clashes between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhines, are not stable for the refugees.

"This is not a peaceful atmosphere," Mr Oo Hla Saw, a Rakhine Member of Parliament from the Arakan National Party, told The Straits Times. "Coming back is not going to be easy."

Chief executive Matthew Smith of human rights group Fortify Rights said in a statement that "any repatriation now would be premature and dangerous".

"Repatriation should be safe, truly voluntary, and dignified, but the current situation fails to come close to this standard."

According to Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, returnees will be staying in a transition camp in Hla Pho Khaung in northern Rakhine, while their new homes are being built. State media said the site can accommodate about 30,000 people.

Dr Ko Ko Naing, the ministry's director-general for relief and resettlement, said that returnees can earn a living helping to build these new homes. "When they finish building their houses, they can just go back home," he said.

"If they don't want to stay at the transit centre, they can stay in tents at their construction sites (where their new homes will be)."

It is unclear if the Rohingya will get to return to their original dwellings which were razed during the violence last year.

The Rohingya, who many in Myanmar regard as interlopers from then Bengal during British colonial rule, elicit little sympathy in the country. Communal riots in Rakhine displaced over 100,000 Rohingya in 2012 and left them confined to camps where mobility and income opportunities were severely restricted.

Local suspicion of Rohingya hardened last year after militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army staged a coordinated attack on security posts on Aug 25. In the ensuing violence, scores of Rohingya were shot, killed and gang raped.

The military has denied any wrongdoing, save for an admission earlier this month that troops took part in an extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya in a village called Inn Din.

During the unrest, native Rakhines as well as minority Hindus, Mro and Diagnet mostly fled inland, while the Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh.

Some 688,000 refugees have crossed from Myanmar to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh since then, according to the latest report by the Inter Sector Coordination Group.

Some Myanmar officials have mixed feelings about the repatriation. "We prepared everything, such as medical and humanitarian assistance," said Mr Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government. But he added: "I don't think Rakhine state would be a good place for them. They want to go back to their original homes but we can only provide a place near their original homes, because we have security and other concerns."

SEE EDITORIAL: Myanmar's Rakhine needs calm minds

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar delayed'. Print Edition | Subscribe