A second attempt to repatriate the Rohingya living in Bangladesh to Myanmar has fallen flat as the refugees remain reluctant to return to their homeland.
The repatriation efforts continued until 4pm on Thursday as the authorities stood ready to send back anyone willing to return to Myanmar but none of the Rohingya showed any eagerness to go back to their homeland.
But Bangladesh refused to call off the efforts. Speaking to reporters at his office in Dhaka, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said, “We remain hopeful. It’s Myanmar’s problem and they need to resolve it. We won’t force anything.”
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam, too, was not ready to call it a “failed attempt”.
“We will continue interviewing the families from 9am to 4pm every day. Our buses and trucks will be ready. We will send back anyone willing to leave,” he said.
“It cannot be said that Rohingya repatriation efforts have failed or are uncertain until the interviews are over,” he added.
United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and Bangladesh have been interviewing 3,540 people from 1,037 families of refugee camps No. 24, 26 and 27 at Shalbagan in Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar following clearance by Myanmar for repatriation from a list of more than 22,000 refugees that Bangladesh provided.
The authorities brought three buses, four microbuses and two trucks for any Rohingya families willing to go back to Myanmar via transit camps along the borders at Ghumdhum and Teknaf.
Many of the Rohingya refugees on the list locked their shacks from outside and stayed away fearing forceful repatriation, let alone volunteering to go back.
Kalam, flanked by two officials of the Chinese embassy in Dhaka who have worked as mediators and a Myanmar representative, came to the camp No. 26 in the afternoon.
“The process to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar could not be started despite full preparations of Bangladesh. The Rohingya said in the interview that they would not go back to their homeland,” he said.
One representative from each of 339 families out of the 1,037 selected by Myanmar were interviewed until 4pm on Thursday.
They have reiterated that they will not return until Myanmar fulfils at least four conditions – giving them citizenship, ensuring their security, returning their land and giving compensation for what they have faced, besides letting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Rohingya to go back to their homes.
They will return at once when the conditions are met, Syed Ullah, General Secretary of Arakan Rohingya Society, an association of the refugees, said.
When Kalam’s attention was drawn to the conditions set by the Rohingya, he said: “It’s a matter between Myanmar and the Rohingya. We will only send them across the border.”
He also said the Rohingya’s reluctance to go back was “temporary”. “We think they will slowly change their mind,” he said.
Zhang Tianzhu, one of the Chinese officials, said at the time that China took charge as a mediator in the talks for Rohingya repatriation.
He did not say why the refugees were refusing to go back or whether Myanmar was able to create an environment conducive to repatriating the Rohingya.
Speaking about the conditions set by the Rohingyas, Foreign Minister Momen said: “We can't be held hostage to their demands."
UNHCR sees Myanmar’s engagement in this process as a “positive” step in the affirmation of the right to return of Rohingya refugees, but added: “However, it is essential that UNHCR and UNDP have more predictable and effective access to refugees’ places of origin and potential areas of return in Rakhine State.”
A military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
A panel of independent investigators, set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar's government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible "under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide."