Myanmar and Bangladesh are making a second attempt to start repatriating Rohingya Muslims after more than 700,000 of them fled a security crackdown in Myanmar almost two years ago, Bangladeshi and U.N. officials said on Friday.
Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told The Associated Press (AP) that the government of Bangladesh has asked for its help in verifying the 3,450 people who signed up for voluntary repatriation. She said the list was whittled down from 22,000 names that Bangladesh had sent to Myanmar for verification.
The first group of refugees would return to Myanmar next week, providing they agree to go back. "We have agreed to the repatriation of 3,540 people on August 22," Myint Thu, a spokesman for Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters by phone.
Speaking in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, he said the government had ordered local officials in the Cox's Bazar district to locate those on the list in the four refugee camps there, but their repatriation would only happen if they actually want to return voluntarily. "We are working as per the list, but I can't tell you if they will go back," he said.
Previous attempts at persuading Rohingya to return to Rakhine have failed due to opposition from refugees. An effort in November sowed fear and confusion in the camps, and finally failed after refugee protests. A senior Bangladeshi official told Reuters the new effort was a "small-scale" repatriation plan, adding that nobody will be forced to return.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine for neighboring Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown in August 2017 the United Nations has said was perpetrated with "genocidal intent," but many refugees refuse to go back, fearing more violence. Leaders of the Rohingya refugee community in the camps said they had not been consulted on the matter and were unaware of plans for any imminent return.
The U.N.-established Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar's top military commanders for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Myanmar has rejected the report and any suggestion its forces did anything wrong.
In July, Myanmar officials went to the camps in Bangladesh to talk to the refugees about their plans and preparations to bring them back, the latest of several similar visits. So far, most refugees appear to distrust the promises and believe it is too dangerous to return. It is unclear when any repatriation might begin, given the need to find and check all the individuals and the fact that there is a major holiday at the moment in Bangladesh, Gluck said. It is also possible that the process may stall, as it did last year.
The Rohingya have long been treated as outsiders in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless, and they are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.