By Kamran Reza Chowdhury on Aug 13, 2018
Bangladesh has agreed to a request from Myanmar officials to replace the words “Myanmar nationals” with “displaced persons from Rakhine state” on identity cards issued to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi official told BenarNews.
Dhaka agreed to the change during meetings this weekend in Myanmar between Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali and Kyaw Tint Swe, the minister of Myanmar’s State Counselor’s Office.
A high-profile delegation led by Ali on Saturday toured Maungdaw township in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the site of last year’s military crackdown that prompted one of the world’s worst refugee crises in decades.
“While discussing the repatriation issues at the ministerial meeting, Myanmar raised objection about the words used in the identity card we issued for the Rohingya now living in Cox’s Bazar,” a member of the Bangladeshi delegation told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
Myanmar emphasized during the meeting that in line with an agreement signed in Naypyidaw on Nov. 23 2017, the people who fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine “are not Myanmar citizens, but they used to live in Rakhine,” the source said.
“We listened to them, and agreed to change the identity of those living in Cox’s Bazar as ‘displaced persons from Rakhine state,’” he said. He did not make it clear when Dhaka would issue the new cards reflecting the agreed changes.
Nor was it clear how the decision would affect a joint effort announced in June by U.N. and Bangladeshi officials to issue new ID cards to all Rohingya refugees older than 12 after verifying their identities.
Refugees refuse to return without safety guarantees
Rohingya leaders expressed concerns that Myanmar’s latest move could “obliterate” their historical rights.
“We are Rohingya. We are Myanmar nationals. We do not belong to Bangladesh,” Mohammad Afzal, a leader of Balukhali refugee camp, told BenarNews in a phone interview. “Bangladesh has refrained from calling us Rohingya because of Myanmar’s objection. Now, they won’t call us Myanmar nationals?”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Humayun Kabir, a former ambassador and vice president of private think-tank Bangladesh Enterprise Institute told BenarNews that Naypyitaw’s demand for Dhaka to drop the word “Myanmar national” from the Rohingya ID cards seeks to “bring uniformity in the nomenclature officially used by Bangladesh and Myanmar.”
“This is not a big issue,” he said. “The most important issue is safe and sustainable repatriation of the Rohingya.”
Ali and his delegation visited the villages to verify Myanmar’s preparation for the planned repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, about 700,000 of whom fled to southeastern Bangladesh starting a year ago as a result of a military campaign that the United States and the United Nations have condemned as ethnic cleansing.
The crackdown followed attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police outposts in August 2017.
The refugees live in rudimentary shelters on tree-stripped hills in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district, joining about 400,000 others who had fled earlier waves of violence in Myanmar.
Although Bangladesh and Myanmar formally agreed almost nine months ago to work together to start repatriation, no Rohingya has officially returned. Rohingya leaders have told BenarNews in previous interviews that they do not intend to go back until their safety is guaranteed.
By Anonymous on Aug 13, 2018 05:18 pm
A draft of a confidential memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government and two United Nations agencies says Rohingya Muslim refugees who voluntarily return to the country from neighboring Bangladesh will be safely returned to their original places of residence or to a secure place of their choice nearest to those locations.
They will also have the same freedom of movement as other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, the document says.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population signed the MoU with the United Nations development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies on June 6, but the document and its terms have not been issued publicly.
A copy of the draft MoU obtained by Radio Free Asia outlines the general principles and the scope of the parties’ cooperation in returning and reintegrating some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled northern Rakhine state after two brutal crackdowns by security forces in October 2016 and August 2017, which included killings, rape and arson.
The first campaign drove about 90,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, while the second forced more than 700,000 to flee. The refugees have been living in sprawling makeshift camps in southeastern Bangladesh with others who escaped from previous bouts of violence in Rakhine.
“[T]hose who have left Myanmar are to return voluntarily and safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice based on their well-informed decision,” the MoU says.
It also says: “The returnees will enjoy the same freedom of movement as all other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, in conformity with existing laws and regulations, and in conformity with the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission.”
After the residency of returning refugees has been verified, Myanmar’s labor ministry will issue identification documents to the returnees and “ensure a clear and voluntary pathway to citizenship to those eligible,” the MoU says.
Because Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, it systematically discriminates against them, denying them citizenship — though some have lived in the country for generations — freedom of movement, and access to educations, jobs and health care.
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in multiethnic Rakhine state, although it did not evaluate possible human rights violations by security forces.
Its final report issued in August 2017 called for the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine that house Rohingya displaced by communal violence in 2012, reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the minority group from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on them to preclude further violence in the region.
A durable solution
The MoU, which does not refer to the Rohingya by name, also says that the government will work for a “durable and comprehensive solution to the displacement of persons in and from Rakhine state,” and that the parties to the agreement will conduct assessments, planning, coordination, fundraising, and implementation activities with regard to relevant humanitarian and development actions.
“The parties agree to the principle that assistance must be designed and implemented in a way that is conflict sensitive, inclusive, and non-discriminatory, taking into account international humanitarian and development principles,” the MoU says.
Under the agreement, the UNHCR will provide assistance with the voluntary repatriation and resettlement program through protection activities, community consultations and site visits, and support programs that benefit all communities in potential return areas.
The UNDP is tasked with coordinating and providing support to assessments related to building resiliency in communities in Rakhine, including sustainable livelihoods, conflict sensitivity and local institutional capacity building at selected project sites, and with undertaking the planning process for the recovery and development that will benefit returnees.
“Activities on repatriation, reintegration assistance, and resilience-based recovery and development under this MoU will be aimed at helping returnees to resume their normal life in the shortest possible time,” the document says.
Rights groups have criticized the parties to the MoU for not publicly releasing the terms of the agreement.
But the document says, “The parties shall ensure that information under this MoU is not transferred or supplied to any third party without prior written consent from all parties.”
The parties must submit written notice to terminate their agreement or temporarily suspend its execution three months in advance of the end date.
The MoU is in effect for 12 months from the date of its signing. The parties must decide whether to agree to an extension of the MoU at least 90 days before its expiration date on July 5, 2019.
The UNHCR also signed a separate and similar MoU with Bangladesh in April regarding the return of the Rohingya refugees.
The U.N., rights groups and other members of the international community have said that the crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, and the repatriation plan has failed to overcome the Rohingyas’ fears of returning to places where many were killed and their villages burned last year.
Visit by Bangladeshi FM
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali is meanwhile on a four-day visit to Rakhine state to discuss issues related to the repatriation of the Rohingya.
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh on Nov. 23, 2017, to take back the refugees who wished to voluntarily return to Myanmar and whose prior residency in the country can be verified.
During a ministerial meeting, the two sides agreed on the need to speed up the implementation of the repatriation program, and the Bangladeshi foreign minister cited the need to accelerate the creating of an environment conducive to their return in northern Rakhine state, according to a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Foreign affairs on July 11.
Myanmar, which has built two refugee reception centers and one transit camp with a capacity of handling 30,000 people, has identified 42 sites for resettlements and is erecting prefabricated housing for the returnees in selected locations, the statement said.
Though Myanmar previously said it was prepared to begin taking back refugees in January, the program has been beset by delays, with each side blaming the other.
“[The] two governments will keep working on the repatriation process according to [their] agreement,” said Aung Tun Thet, member of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), a Myanmar government initiative to rebuild infrastructure and the economy in tattered Rakhine state and to return and resettle the refugees.
Members of the UEHRD, which is chaired by the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, met with Ali on Aug. 10 in Naypyidaw to discuss repatriation readiness in accordance with the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Myanmar government also asked the Bangladeshi foreign minister to stop providing humanitarian aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNDP, and international NGOs to the 6,000 Rohingya refugees living in a no-man’s land on the border line between the two countries, according to the statement issued by Bangladesh’s foreign affairs ministry.
Instead, Myanmar proposed delivering aid from the Myanmar side, it said.
The refugees living in the no-man’s land have previously demanded that the Myanmar government grant them citizenship, ensure their safety, and rebuild their destroyed houses.
“The border line area is the place where nobody is in [one country or the other],” Aung Tun Thet said. “As long as people live in this area, we have difficulties and challenges. That’s why we have been asking the people who live in this area to move out.”
Bangladesh said it “responded positively” to Myanmar’s proposal to conduct a new joint survey of the no man’s land area, the statement said.
Reported by Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews.