Bangladesh officials say they expect to begin a third effort to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June.
The target date – seen as premature by many Rohingya – emerged from this week’s talks between the two countries under Chinese mediation.
“We proposed beginning the repatriation by March. But Myanmar said that for some logistical reasons they would need some more time,” said Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, who led the Bangladeshi side in the tripartite meeting Tuesday.
“Following our meeting, it appears, we would be able to begin the repatriation by June,” Momen told reporters in Dhaka.
Myanmar’s deputy minister for international cooperation U Hau Do Suan and China’s vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui represented their respective countries in the 90-minute virtual meeting.
But many Rohingya in the sprawling refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar say they are unwilling to return to Myanmar before a series of long-standing demands are met.
“Myanmar has to guarantee to return the full citizenship rights to all Rohingya -- this is our main demand,” said Jan Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee who fled to Bangladesh in 2017 and lives in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“We all want to return to our native villages in Rakhine. Violent crimes were committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine that led to our exodus from Myanmar. All perpetrators have to be held accountable for their crimes, he told VOA. “And, there must be a neutral international security force to ensure our safety in Rakhine.”
He added, “I am sure no Rohingya will be ready to go back to Rakhine if Myanmar does not care to fulfill our demands.”
Subjected to ethnic violence in Myanmar, minority Rohingya Muslims have for decades escaped persecution and economic hardship in Myanmar by fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh, where more than 1.2 million of the refugees now live, mostly in congested shanty colonies.
After some 750,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh following a brutal military-led campaign in Rakhine in 2017, international pressure forced Myanmar to agree that it would take back the Rohingya refugees.
But efforts at repatriation failed in 2018 and 2019, when the Rohingya refused to return home, saying they still felt unsafe in Rakhine, and that Myanmar had not assured them of full citizenship rights.
China subsequently offered to help the two countries find a solution, beginning with a tripartite meeting in New York in January 2020. Tuesday’s meeting was a continuation of that effort.
Bangladesh has repeatedly said the congested country is overburdened with Rohingya refugees. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, said some weeks ago that “there is no other alternative” to the Rohingya crisis except repatriation.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Bangladesh proposed that representatives from the international community, including the United Nations, be present in Rakhine to oversee the repatriation. China and Myanmar reportedly welcomed the proposal, but no concrete decision was taken.
Bangladesh also proposed that the populations of whole villages in Rakhine be returned together, which could make them feel safer. Myanmar officials said they would like to begin with 42,000 Rohingya, whose identities have already been verified from a list of 840,000 refugees previously provided by Bangladesh.
Bangladesh also proposed that Myanmar send a delegation to Cox’s Bazar to interact with Rohingya refugee community leaders and try to persuade them to return.
Foreign Secretary AK Abdul Momen said his nation is doing its best to begin the repatriation as soon as possible.
“We could not succeed to begin the repatriation on two attempts in the past. But we have learned some lessons in the process. We are trying our best to be successful this time,” he said.
The foreign secretary noted that 90,000 Rohingya children have been born in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps in the past three years.
“The Rohingya population is growing in Bangladesh. The growth of the population will give rise to new complications. For us there is no alternative to begin the repatriation on a fast track,” the foreign secretary said.
“We have put our heart and soul into this process to begin the repatriation as soon as possible.”