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Undeniable: Rohingya team visit marks beginning of repatriation from Bangladesh

By Tilottama Rani Charulata* 

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority group in the world. Such persecution has forced Rohingyas into Bangladesh for many years, with significant spikes following violent attacks in 1978, 1992, and again in 2016. More than 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee from Myanmar following a brutal military crackdown in 2017. Currently, Bangladesh has been hosting nearly 1.2 million Rohingya refugees for six years. At this point, there are more Rohingyas in Bangladesh than in Myanmar.
Due to this massive refugee crisis, the socio-economic and security situation of Bangladesh is worsening and there seems to be no other way except a repatriation, which has been a hanging case for the last six years. The issue remained at a deadlock and to bring momentum, Bangladesh needed an initiative from Myanmar. A breakthrough finally happened on May 05, when a team of 20 Rohingya accompanied by seven Bangladesh government officials visited two of 15 villages in Rakhine State, at the invitation of the Myanmar government.

Bangladesh welcomes the pilot project

The Rohingya team left for Myanmar via the transboundary Naf River to visit a settlement in Rakhine State. The visit was considered a part of a “confidence-building measure” for repatriation to encourage Rohingyas for a self-willing return. This is the first time any Rohingya delegation visited Rakhine to assess the situation there as the Rohingyas have not volunteered to return home despite two attempts, arguing that the situation was not conducive.
Earlier, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to repatriate this huge number of Rohingyas to Myanmar in 2017 and 2019. These attempts failed to repatriate the Rohingyas because the Rohingya refused to return to their homeland for fear of fresh persecution and lack of a congenial environment for repatriation. Bangladesh has raised the issue at every international forum, with the support of many countries. But Myanmar had been indifferent to international laws and norms. Finally, it is taking this symbolic step, most possibly to "lighten the responsibility" in its next submission to the International Court of Justice in May regarding the Rohingya genocide.
The foreign ministry of Bangladesh welcomed this effort and appreciated Myanmar’s willingness. The development comes amid a series of events that took place for Rohingya justice and repatriation. The UN refugee agency said it was aware of Friday's trip, which was taking place "under a bilateral arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar". Some experts and rights activists have observed that the UN’s involvement in the visit would be more conducive for the parties involved in the pilot project to initiate the repatriation. However, Refugee returns must be voluntary, in safety and dignity and no refugee should be forced to do so. And this pilot project is following those steps sincerely.

Facilities offered by Myanmar

Upon their arrival, Myanmar authorities briefed the team about the possible benefits they would likely get in the villages. After the Rohingyas return, each family will be given a house in the model village, land for agriculture, fertilizer, and seeds. The government will provide Rohingyas ‘with national verification cards (NVC)’ and within half a year would be able to travel outside Maungdaw Township. Hospitals, mosques, and playgrounds are being housed in the model villages, which were not present in Rohingya settlements in the past. The model village of Mangdu is much better than the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh in every possible way.
For those who will stay in the model village, each family will be allocated one acre of land for cultivation. Those families who wish to build their own homes can do so and the regime will pay for them. There will be no barbed wire fence around the villages. A Maungdaw official informed the team that Rohingya children will be allowed to study and go to Sittwe University. Most Rohingyas who are now living in Maungdaw, are working, and moving freely in Maungdaw city, the returnee will enjoy the same.

Response from the Rohingya

It is undeniable that this visit by the Rohingya team marks a new beginning of the Rohingya repatriation. Rohingya repatriation will largely depend on the voluntariness of the Rohingyas, and their confidence in security and equal rights as citizens of Myanmar. The purpose of the visit was to inspect infrastructure built in Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township with grants from the governments of Japan, India, and China for the “repatriation and resettlement of refugees”. Regarding that, no member of the delegation team had any complaints.
Rohingya refugees, who have spent nearly six years living in overcrowded and squalid camps in Cox's Bazar, have been hopeful of the scheme since it became public knowledge in March. Though their queries about security or recognition of their right to citizenship in Myanmar has not been answered. But the bilateral talks have just begun, so there is always room for bargaining as Rohingyas have international support. Soon a team from Myanmar would visit the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar to try and convince them to be repatriated.
Bangladesh and international concerned communities are optimistic about Rohingya repatriation this time. There was a need for a ‘pilot repatriation project’ to send back refugees where both countries have historical experience and references to repatriate Rohingyas. Through this initiative and China’s mediation, both countries can resolve the long-pending Rohingya crisis. As every refugee has an inalienable right to return to their place of origin and such returns must also be voluntary, this confidence-building measure will play a crucial role to encourage Rohingyas to return their home.
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*Independent researcher. She is interested in East, South and Southeast Asian politics

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