Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to start repatriating Rohingya refugees in the second quarter of 2021, more than three years after some 740,000 people fled to Bangladeshi refugee camps to escape a brutal military-led ethnic cleansing campaign in their home in Rakhine state.
However, at a virtual meeting on Tuesday, chaired by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, and the first such negotiation since last January, Myanmar shot down Dhaka’s plan to start sending refugees home earlier.
"We had proposed starting the repatriation in the first quarter, but Myanmar said logistical arrangement will take some more time. So, we said we can do it in the second quarter. They agreed to it," AK Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign affairs minister told reporters.
He said China and Myanmar had accepted Dhaka's proposal of allowing international observers, but added that Myanmar would only start off with 42,000 out of 830,000 refugees who had already been biometrically verified by Bangladesh, reported the local Daily Star.
The tentative deal leaves unanswered questions about rights and security guarantees for the Rohingya, although Mr Momen said he had stressed the need to create the right conditions to ensure “voluntary repatriation.”
Two previous attempts in 2018 and 2019 collapsed over refugees’ safety fears.
A statement about the meeting issued by Naypyidaw claimed that “Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation” reported Radio Free Asia.
The two sides agreed to hold a follow-up meeting in first week of February.
China continues to insist the issue is “bilateral,” demanding the international community refrain from “further complicating the situation.”
However, Bangladesh has stressed it needs international help to find a lasting solution.
In exclusive comments to The Telegraph ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Mr Momen expressed frustration not only at foot-dragging by Myanmar which had “the moral and legal responsibility to end this crisis” but also at the United Nations and wider international community.
“We are trying hard bilaterally, trilaterally and even multilaterally to end the plight of these persecuted people. We approached the UN also but except lip service and tall talks, none could ameliorate the plight of Rohingyas,” he said.
Mr Momen urged rights groups and the UN to dedicate more efforts to “convincing Myanmar to create a conducive environment inside Rakhine province” where the Rohingya had lived for centuries.
“Their focus should be to help rehabilitate them and achieve a decent and secure life in their own country,” he said. “It is unfortunate that although Myanmar is violating human rights and engaged in ethnic cleansing, many countries instead of sanctioning and stopping business and investment in Myanmar, in fact, increased it.
“When apartheid was being practiced in South Africa, many human rights groups and organisations made clarion calls for divestment, organised campus demonstrations against apartheid and due to such pressure, apartheid ended,” he said.
“Rights groups should focus and commit their resources to end persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar.”
In December, Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, admitted the international community had failed to create the conditions in Myanmar for a safe return and to adequately support Bangladesh.
Dhaka has borne much of the burden of the mass outflow of refugees in 2017 as they fled the horrors of a military crackdown that UN investigators said would justify the prosecution of top generals for “genocide.” Myanmar denies this charge and the accusation of ethnic cleansing.
Among Bangladesh’s own proposals to tackle the “trust deficit” between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government Dhaka has suggested Naypyitaw send its officials to the Bangladeshi camps to reassure them, and that non-military civilian observers be allowed into Rakhine state.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, pointed out that Myanmar still confines more than 125,000 Rohingya to more than 20 internment camps in five townships of Rakhine State, adding that Myanmar was still “a dangerous place to be a Muslim.”
He added: “Myanmar needs to take its military boots off the necks of Rohingya. For voluntary, safe and dignified returns, at a minimum Naypyidaw would need to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law,” which deprives the Rohingya of citizenship.
“Before any serious talk of repatriation, Naypyidaw should close down the internment camps, provide reparations, and support Rohingya to rebuild in their places of origin.”
The UNHCR on Wednesday said it welcomed the discussions as “crucial to making progress” for a “safe, voluntary and sustainable return.”
But it added that the Rohingya should have a seat at the table. “Many Rohingya refugees tell us they want to return home to Myanmar when conditions permit, and they are asking to be consulted as part of the repatriation process,” said a spokesperson.