Members of a Rohingya delegation are seen at a government rest house in Teknaf, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, April 4, 2023
By Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Abdur Rahman on May 04, 2023 Benar New
Bangladesh is moving full steam ahead with a China-backed project to begin repatriating Rohingya to Myanmar, a plan that Human Rights Watch warned would put the lives of the persecuted refugees at “grave risk.”
On Friday, a delegation of 27 people, including 20 Rohingya from refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, is scheduled to visit Maungdaw in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, to assess preparations for the planned move this month of about 1,000 refugees.
Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner said the trip would be a follow-on action to a visit in March by Burmese officials to verify the identities of the Rohingya who were part of a mass exodus who fled a brutal 2017 military crackdown against the stateless minority group.
“We are going to help the forcibly displaced people of Myanmar to assess whether the situation in Rakhine is favorable for return,” Mohammed Mizanur Rahman told BenarNews on Thursday.
“Our plan is to start the repatriation by this month,” he said, insisting that Dhaka would not force any refugees to go back.
Despite its questionable role in this repatriation program, the United Nations refugee agency said in March that conditions in Rakhine state were not favorable for the safe return of 1,000 Rohingya.
Abul Kashem, a Rohingya leader from the Cox’s Bazar camp who is part of the delegation visiting Friday, told BenarNews that refugees were not interested in going back to camps in Myanmar.
“Once we go there, we can see whether the situation is conducive to return. We, the Rohingya people, want to return to our homesteads, but not to camps there,” he said.
Bangladesh diplomatic observers said the plan really is a “ploy” by Myanmar’s military rulers to stave off international pressure ahead of a hearing next month at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in an application to the court by The Gambia that says Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya.
The United States in March 2021 declared as a genocide the Myanmar military’s 2017 deadly crackdown against Rohingya Muslims that killed thousands and forced nearly 740,000 people to flee across the border to neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar is “interested in starting repatriation, though on a limited scale,” said Faruk Khan, the chairman of the Bangladesh foreign ministry’s parliamentary watchdog committee.
“Myanmar has come to understand that they must take their people back. Otherwise, they would face more international sanctions and pressures,” he told BenarNews.
“China has also come to understand that the Rohingya crisis must be settled. So they have been using their influence over Myanmar. I would not say that all people would return in a year, but once the repatriation starts, gradually the pace would be faster,” he added, about the Beijing-backed plan.
A former foreign secretary, Md. Shahidul Haque, expressed skepticism about the repatriation move.
“The Rohingya refugees want to return to their original homesteads, while Myanmar says they must live at guarded camps for 120 days before going to their villages; a big question remains what freedom the Rohingya would get in Rakhine,” Haque told BenarNews.
“Myanmar is set to submit their counter-[argument] at the ICJ. Keeping this issue in mind, Myanmar has been showing interests in repatriation. They become active in repatriation before every ICJ hearings, and cut off communications afterwards.”
In March, Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plan. The prospect of durable returns has grown ever more distant since the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, carried out by the same generals who orchestrated the 2017 mass atrocities, HRW said.
“Voluntary, safe, and dignified returns of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar are not possible while the military junta is carrying out massacres around the country and apartheid in Rakhine State,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for the watchdog group.
“Bangladesh authorities should stop deceiving these refugees to get them to engage with junta officials when it’s clear that Rohingya will only be able to return safely when rights-respecting rule is established.”