A Rohingya refugee delegation has arrived in Myanmar to tour new facilities built for the revival of a long-stalled plan to return the persecuted minority to their homeland.
Bangladesh officials said on Friday that 20 Rohingya and seven officials, including a border guard officer, were visiting two model villages erected for the pilot return project.
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“We departed from Teknaf jetty with 20 Rohingya members, including three women,” Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner Mohammed Khalid Hossain told the AFP news agency.
“They will see the various facilities created for the purpose of repatriation to Myanmar,” he said as their boat left the river port for neighbouring Maungdaw township in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
Bangladesh is home to about a million Rohingya, most of whom fled a 2017 military crackdown in neighbouring Myanmar that is now subject to a UN genocide investigation.
Both countries signed an agreement to return the refugees later that year, but little progress has been made since, and the UN has repeatedly warned conditions were not right for their repatriation.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mizanur Rahman told AFP the new facilities include a market, hospital and reception centre for returning refugees. Officials have told AFP they expect repatriations to begin later this month, before the annual monsoon season.
Rohingya refugees, who have spent nearly six years living in overcrowded and squalid camps in Bangladesh, have been consistently wary and sceptical of the scheme since it became public knowledge in March.
Many worry that none of their concerns about security or recognition of their right to citizenship in the Southeast Asian nation has been answered.
“Why will we be sent to Myanmar without citizenship?” a refugee, who said they were also part of Friday’s delegation, told AFP earlier this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Rohingya are widely viewed in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh, despite roots in the country stretching back centuries.
The repatriation plan agreed to in 2017 failed to make any significant headway in the years since, partly over concerns the Rohingya would not be safe if they returned.
Myanmar’s military had until recently shown little inclination to take back any Rohingya, who have for years been denied citizenship and subjected to abuse.
Military chief and ruler Min Aung Hlaing has dismissed the Rohingya identity as “imaginary”, and was also the head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown.
‘Must be voluntary’
The UN refugee agency said it was aware of the trip, which was taking place “under a bilateral arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar”.
“UNHCR is not involved in arranging this visit. However, we reiterate that every refugee has an inalienable right to return to their home country,” agency spokesperson Regina De La Portilla told AFP.
“Refugee returns must be voluntary, in safety and dignity,” she added. “No refugee should be forced to do so.”
The International Court of Justice is probing allegations of rape, murder and arson against entire Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s security forces during the 2017 violence.
In a 2018 report, the UN called for army chief Hlaing and other generals to face genocide charges.