Bangladesh will work with the United Nations refugee agency to determine if more than 3,000 Rohingya refugees will accept Myanmar’s offer to return home, officials said, nearly two years after a military crackdown sparked their exodus.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine state for camps in Bangladesh after a military-led offensive in August 2017- joining 200,000 already there – but virtually none has volunteered to return despite the countries signing a repatriation deal last year.
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“It will be a joint exercise led by UNHCR,” Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Reuters news agency on Monday.
The UN Security Council is due to discuss the latest repatriation plan behind closed doors on Wednesday at the request of France, Britain, the United States, Germany and Belgium, diplomats said.
Myanmar has cleared 3,450 people to make the journey home from a list of more than 22,000 refugees provided by Bangladesh, government spokesman Zaw Htay told a news conference in capital Naypyidaw on Friday.
“We have already negotiated with Bangladesh to accept these 3,450 people on August 22,” he said, adding they would be divided into seven groups for repatriation.
According to Kalam, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials plan to repatriate 300 Rohingya each day.
Kalam told reporters on Monday that all the preparations had been made and he was “optimistic” about a new repatriation process scheduled to start on Thursday.
“Nobody will be forced to return unless they volunteer,” he said after a meeting with Myanmar officials in Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh, where the refugees live in vast camps.
Previous attempts at persuading Rohingya to return to Rakhine have failed due to opposition from refugees, fearing persecution on return.
The last attempt in November 2018 to return 2,260 Rohingya failed after protests, as refugees refused to leave the camp without guarantees for their safety.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, with a plan to return the refugees within two years.
The new push follows a visit last month to the camps by high-ranking officials from Myanmar led by Permanent Foreign Secretary Myint Thu.
Zaw Htay said officials had scrutinised the list to determine whether the refugees had lived in Myanmar and whether they had been involved in attacks on the military.
Kalam said Myanmar and UN officials will meet selected refugees on Tuesday to encourage them to return to Rakhine state.
A Dutch-based Rohingya advocacy group expressed deep concern over the “premature repatriation”.
“Myanmar has so far failed to present to Rohingya community a clear, transparent, strategic and genuine plan of repatriation of nearly one million Rohingya [who] survived Myanmar’s genocide,” the European Rohingya Council said in a statement on Monday.
“Repatriation is impossible while there is still genocidal persecution of Rohingya inside Rakhine state such as restriction of movement, livelihood and education. Hundreds of Rohingya are still locked up in internally displaced camps.”
Sunday will mark the second anniversary of the crackdown that sparked the mass exodus to the Bangladesh camps.
The UN has labelled the offensive “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” with soldiers accused of rape, murder and burning down Rohingya villages.
The August 2017 crackdown was preceded by attacks on security forces by fighters calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which Myanmar classified as a “terrorist” organisation.
The Rohingya, a mainly Muslim minority who live primarily in Rakhine state, are not recognised as an ethnic group in Myanmar, despite having lived there for generations. They have been denied citizenship and are rendered stateless.