More time is needed to prepare the return of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, the UN refugee chief said yesterday, after a Bangladeshi official said the plan to begin it today had been delayed.
“In order for the repatriation to be right, sustainable, actually viable, you need to really address a number of issues that for the time being we have heard nothing about, including the citizenship issue, the rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State, meaning freedom of movement, access to services, to livelihoods,” Filippo Grandi told Reuters.
The UNHCR, which is helping to administer the refugee camps, is not involved in the repatriation process.
Grandi said it was especially important to set up a monitoring mechanism in northern Rakhine for the returning people, reports Reuters.
The Rohingyas have long been denied citizenship by Myanmar, where many in the Buddhist majority regard them as interlopers from Bangladesh.
On Sunday, the diplomats in Dhaka reiterated their calls for a safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation and stressed on creating a congenial environment in Rakhine from where over 688,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh amid security crackdown on them since August 25.
Myanmar and Bangladesh earlier this month agreed to complete the voluntary return of the refugees within two years, starting today.
However, the repatriation is not beginning as per the schedule because the process of compiling and verifying the list of people to be sent back is incomplete, a senior Bangladesh official said.
“There are many things remaining...The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps is remaining,” Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, told Reuters yesterday.
Earlier on Sunday, he told The Daily Star Bangladesh and Myanmar had finalised the registration forms for the refugee families on January 16 and the authorities are now preparing the list.
The process has started and it would take some time before the repatriation takes place, he said without specifying exactly when the return could begin.
Myanmar yesterday said it was ready to take back the returning Rohingya.
“We are ready to accept them once they come back. On our part, the preparation is ready,” Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told Reuters by phone.
He declined to comment on whether Bangladesh had informed Myanmar about the delay.
Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based regional rights body, said the repatriation should take place only when Myanmar authorities restore the rights of Rohingyas.
It added that Rohingya refugees are continuing to cross the border in search of safety in Bangladesh.
"The very idea of repatriations now is a farce. There must be genuine changes for Rohingya in Myanmar before there can be any serious discussions of repatriation,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights.
Any repatriation now would be premature and dangerous, he said.
“Repatriation should be safe, truly voluntary, and dignified, but the current situation fails to come close to this standard,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, at the Palongkhali refugee camp, near the Naf River that marks the border between the two countries, a group of Rohingya leaders gathered early morning yesterday with a loudspeaker and a banner listing a set of demands.
These include security guarantees, the granting of citizenship and the group's recognition as one of Myanmar's official ethnic minorities.
The Rohingyas are also asking that homes, mosques and schools that were burned down or damaged in the military operation be rebuilt.