Dhaka, Bangladesh – Almost a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state crossed the border into Bangladesh to escape a brutal campaign of mass killings, rape and arson by Myanmar’s security forces.
Today, more than 700,000 people from the persecuted, mostly Muslim minority are settled in Ukhiya and Teknaf, the two sub-districts – or upazilas – of Cox’s Bazar, a tourist beach town in Bangladesh.
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Along with 300,000 others who had previously fled Rakhine, the Rohingya refugees number over a million. They live in dire conditions in overcrowded camps, rife with sanitary problems and at risk of perilous landslides during heavy rains.
In November 2017, Bangladesh, a small country with a population of 160 million, signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar to return the recent influx of refugees, who were not consulted about the agreement.
To date not one Rohingya has been allowed back into Rakhine State, while refugees and rights groups express concern about the deal, which does not guarantee safety upon return or basic rights such as full citizenship.
Al Jazeera spoke to Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister of foreign affairs, about the Rohingya repatriation and whether resettlement within the country will take on a more permanent character.
Al Jazeera: Bangladesh has received many waves of Rohingya refugees over the past three decades. Is there any plan to assimilate any Rohingya, especially those who first fled Myanmar in 1978 and in 1991?
Shahriar Alam: No, there is no such plan because Bangladesh is already the most densely populated country on Earth. We strongly believe they (Rohingya) belong to Myanmar. They were ripped off their citizenship rights, but that is something Myanmar should address. It’s not an issue we should be dealing with.
Al Jazeera: There’s been little movement forward since the signing of the repatriation deal. Why there is such reluctance on Myanmar’s part to repatriate some of the recently displaced Rohingya?
Alam: First of all, political willingness is very important on such a sensitive issue. We believe that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, has the right mindset but probably facing opposition domestically. However, I don’t want to comment on that.
Progress is painstakingly slow. Things are moving, but the actual repatriation is yet to start in numbers. There are very small groups who were taken back by Myanmar – who claim that they are being repatriated but that is not the case, they were on the Zero Line (no man’s land). Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Pororashtrya Montri went to Myanmar twice, and their minister came here and in my observation, the significant developments are threefold:
One is after intense negotiations, Myanmar signed the tripartite agreement with UNDP and UNHCR who will be overseeing repatriation. This is the first time they have engaged UN bodies. The second is my minister came back from Myanmar on August 13 after visiting the troubled region where the Rohingya will be going back to. He has seen for himself the new infrastructures Myanmar has built in their villages in Rakhine.
Progess is painstakingly slow. Things are moving, but the actual repatriation is yet to start in numbers.
And the third is that Myanmar has reached out to their people of their own country here. Two months ago, an official from Aung San Suu Kyi’s office for the first time visited the camps here. He met and spoke to the Rohingya people and listened to their grievances and concerns about security, the lack of stability and economic emancipation of the area they’re from.
This is the progress, and we believe that since we have done almost everything, some minor details need to be addressed at the centres – not unlike immigration offices – when the physical movements will take place. We believe that repatriation will start soon.
Al Jazeera: Many of the Rohingya refugees we spoke to in the camps said that they would rather stay and die in Bangladesh rather than go back to Myanmar if there no Rohingya recognition, government compensation and reparations, and more inclusivity in government services. Will there be a forced return implemented by the Bangladeshi government of refugees, especially those who despite their living conditions, prefer being stuck in the camps rather than going back?
Alam: We appreciate their concern, and we fully understand where they are coming from. That is why we didn’t want to rush into repatriation despite massive domestic pressure. We are talking about more than a million people – 780,000 this time around and 300,000 from decades ago.
We want a sustainable return. That means willful return, law and order, having facilities they lacked before, and safety and security. That is the exact reason why the foreign minister went to the Maugdaw and Buthidaung townships in Rakhine State. We want to convince ourselves and assess the situation before we send back one Rohingya. If they go back in numbers and something bad happens to them, it’ll be extremely difficult then to convince these people that they should go back. We understand that no one wants to leave their homeland, but at the same time we understand why some of them refuse to go back unless those demands are met – and that is legitimate.
Al Jazeera: On the international stage, Russia and China have vetoed resolutions in favour of ending the political persecution of the Rohingya population. Is there any kind of pressure being applied to them to vote otherwise?
Alam: We have done our best for them to understand the ground realities, even though if there was a voting tomorrow they would still hold the same position. The UN Security Council did a fantastic job by bringing in all of the 15 members. All of them spoke to the media, shared their views and appreciated the efforts made by [Bangladeshi] Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina’s government.
At the same time, they understood the suffering of the Rohingya people and the challenges they face. The only difference between the 13 countries and China and Russia is that the latter think we need to have a staggered approach, a gradual approach.
Aggravating the Myanmar government might backfire because it is a complex country, and is trying to come out of a decades-old military rule into a democratic system of government. Considering these complexities, we understand where they are coming from. Obviously, we would love to see an all-agreed-upon proposal from the Security Council where no one would object to, but unfortunately, that is yet to happen.
Al Jazeera: There’s been a lot of criticisms from human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch over the Bangladeshi government’s plan to resettle 100,000 Rohingya in the uninhabited island of Bhashan Char. The government is spending $280m from its own coffers. Do you think the reason why there hasn’t been other funding coming from donor countries or organisations is due to the fact that it is a cyclone-prone area? What will this new settlement look like?
Alam: It’s not a detention centre. We haven’t reached out to the developmental partners for help and support [because] we want to build it first. Whoever, be it Amnesty or other human rights organisations, are welcome to come and visit the place upon its completion.
Bangladesh is climatically vulnerable. The worst natural disaster in the history of mankind happened in Bangladesh in 1970, where, in one evening, one million died. The most important part on Bhasan Char is the embankment, which will protect the area from the sea. That is where most of the money is going.
We are building concrete U-shaped clusters which will house 800 people. It’s a multi-purpose centre that has a cyclone-resistant shelter, a school, a freshwater pond where they will be allowed to fish, and given cattle to herd. At the same time, they will be able to grow vegetables. So, it is a much better place than the camps they reside in now, where they basically do nothing but collect meals from agencies. In Bhasan Char, they will be busy with livelihood activities. But that is only for 10 percent of the entire Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar.
I would advise those criticising to wait until we open it. We will hopefully be able to invite our friends there in October, before moving the Rohingya people.
Al Jazeera: What are the guarantees that this will not turn out to be a permanent settlement?
Alam: We are sometimes caught in this dilemma. There are suggestions of why we don’t improve what is already there in Kutupalong. And when we do, we get asked by people whether this will become more permanent. But no, it is not. It’s perfectly all right for us to build something where they can stay here for a year, or two, or three more. That’s the way we see it. There is a plan that we can use these structures once the Rohingya are gone for the Bangladeshi people as well.
Follow Linah Alsaafin on Twitter: @LinahAlsaafin