BURMA (Myanmar) and Bangladesh signed a preliminary agreement on Thursday to start the process of repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled across the border to escape violence in northern Rakhine State.
In a press release, the office of Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the agreement “contained the general guiding principles and policy arrangements to systematically verify and receive the displaced persons from Rakhine State.”
The statement also pressed that the situation should be handled bilaterally and avoid outside international involvement, despite Bangladesh voicing a preference for international agencies to be involved in the process.
Rights groups have been quick to criticise the move, with Amnesty International calling the news “unthinkable” while Burma continues to operate a system of “state-sponsored, institutionalized discrimination that amounts to apartheid.”
While the precise details of the deal are not yet known, Burma said the deal was based on a 1992/93 repatriation pact that requires those returning to have identity documents issued by governments in the past, with proof of their residency in Burma. Such criteria will create an initial roadblock for many Rohingya who do not have official documents as they are considered illegal immigrants in the country and remain stateless, despite residing in Burma for generations.
More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since a fresh wave of violence erupted on Aug 25. While Thursday’s agreement may be the first step to some of them returning to Burma, the process is likely to be fraught with difficulty as anti-Rohingya sentiment remains prevalent in the country and the military, who maintains much of the control, has voiced displeasure at the prospect of their return.
Last week, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of Burma’s military, said in a statement on his official Facebook page that it was “impossible to accept the number of persons proposed by Bangladesh.”
He also said that any return of the Rohingya minority must be deemed “acceptable” by the local Rakhine residents.
“Emphasis must be placed on [the] wish of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens,” the statement said. “Only when local Rakhine ethnic people accept it, will all the people satisfy it.”
Homes and villages have been systematically razed by fire, leaving refugees nowhere to return to. Instead, Burma’s authorities have hinted at setting up more camps where they might be sequestered. Amnesty International has equated these living arrangements to “concentration camps” where Rohingya are kept on lock down.
In late October, officials in Burma ordered the harvesting of fields that had been deserted in the Rohingya exodus. The authorities in Burma have said they will confiscate all land that they consider “abandoned.”
With all this considered, it is possible that many Rohingya will not want to return home. Refugees who reached Bangladesh have told of civilians being executed, women gang-raped, villages burned and children being murdered in Rakhine.
“I will never go back home,” Mohamed Rafique, a Muslim cleric who arrived in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in September, told The New York Times. “How can I go back to a place where they want to kill me?”
Burma has said the process of repatriation will commence in two months, but the already fractured nature of the agreement will likely mean the road ahead is far from smooth.
Amnesty International stressed both Burma and Bangladesh’s obligations under international law not to return individuals to a situation in which they are at risk of persecution.
“There can be no safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar while a system of apartheid remains in the country, and thousands are held there in conditions that amount to concentration camps,” Amnesty International’s Director for Refugee and Migrant Rights, Charmain Mohamed said. “Returns in the current climate are simply unthinkable.”