1st Rohingya team visits Myanmar to assess junta’s readiness, citizenship rights ahead of possible repatriation

1st Rohingya team visits Myanmar to assess junta’s readiness, citizenship rights ahead of possible repatriation

Experts concerned as UN officials not joining Rohingya team, refugees want return with citizens’ rights

By SM Najmus Sakib

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) - A 20-member Rohingya team left for Myanmar on Friday via the transboundary Naf River to visit a settlement in Rakhine State prepared for the forcibly displaced nationals under a pilot project.

It marks the first visit by Rohingya to Myanmar following their exodus in August 2017 and follows a rare visit by officials of Myanmar’s junta to refugee camps on Bangladesh’s southeast coast in March this year.

Rohingya rights activists and refugees, however, want to return home with full citizens’ rights.

"Our goal is to initiate the longstanding repatriation,” Bangladesh's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammed Mizanur Rahman told Anadolu.

Rahman is accompanying the team as the Bangladeshi refugee official.

The team began their journey Friday morning and is expected to return by evening the same day.

"Rohingya people visiting with us will have firsthand experience of what the Myanmar government has prepared for them," said Rahman.

Some experts and rights activists have observed that the UN’s involvement in the visit would be more conducive for the parties involved in the pilot project to initiate the repatriation.

The RRRC confirmed that UN officials concerned for refugee management are not taking part in the visit.

Rahman said, however, that the Bangladesh government has shared the development with the UN.

"UN offices in both countries -- in Bangladesh and Myanmar -- if required can support the Rohingya team," he added.

- Visit less discussed among refugees

"We don’t want to stay in the refugee camp forever. Almost six years have passed. Frustration has mounted with security issues in the camps," Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, a refugee rights activist in the Cox’s Bazar camp, told Anadolu.

"We want a repatriation with proper citizens’ rights and safety. Therefore, the possible repatriation must be safe and dignified. There are so many cases against the Rohingya lodged by the junta government, so Rohingya need to be assured that they would not be victims further,” he added.

Commoners in the refugee camps, however, have little knowledge of the visit.

Officials have kept quiet on the visit, treating it as a sensitive issue, and didn't want to clear the visit publicly, he said.

"Refugees in the camps mostly don’t know who the members are on the team to visit Myanmar’s Rakhine state or which pilot project they will visit," he added.

Rights activists said Rohingya returnees want the restoration of their full rights, including citizenship, ethnic rights, freedom of movement and access to education and healthcare, and they fear that such mandatory citizens’ rights might not be ensured.

"If those are not met, this return would be like transferring from a refugee camp to an open-air prison. I know firsthand how the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State are suffering from various restrictions," Nay San Lwin, a co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told Anadolu.

As a basic requirement, the first step should be to ensure the right to return to their original villages, not the villages offered by the junta.

The second step is to abolish the National Verification Card (NVC), also known as the "Genocide Card," he said.

- Experts warn of possible trap by junta

Experts and rights activists have asked the Bangladesh government to be wary over any possible traps by the Myanmar government as the junta is under tremendous pressure, including from the US and its allies.

China is also pressuring Myanmar to initiate the repatriation soon, as Beijing is mediating in the process, they said.

Speaking to Anadolu, Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, said the US has mounted pressure and the Myanmar junta is seen as isolated in the global sphere of power.

"The junta government has lost its military capacity and power and has become isolated. So, Myanmar has become so desperate to prove to the world that the junta government is cordial about taking back its nationals to impress the Western world," he said.

He welcomed the repatriation initiative, saying the pilot project will reportedly be widened if successful.

Renowned rights activist Nur Khan Liton told Anadolu that in recent times, security conditions in the refugee camps have deteriorated. Many Rohingya community leaders have been murdered. There is a security crisis and fear among the refugees that has pushed them to leave the camps to return to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, "there is no major improvement in Rakhine state for repatriation, or the Myanmar junta has not improved the conditions for safe repatriation," he added.

He further warned over trusting the junta government regarding possible repatriation and wondered whether it is a trap for Bangladesh before its national election.

Lwin said that if the returnees’ citizens’ rights are not met, they will face many difficulties, just as they did from 1992-2017.

The junta has been under a lot of pressure from China, and they should bring back some Rohingya refugees to ease the pressure, he added.

"If the junta were willing to bring the Rohingya back, they could start by resettling the 130,000 refugees in the camps in Sittwe, Rakhine State back to their original villages. This would be a big attraction for Rohingya refugees currently in Bangladesh," said Lwin.

In the first phase, over 1,100 pre-screened Rohingya are scheduled to go back under this arrangement if it is successful. Many such initiatives failed earlier due to non-cooperation from the Myanmar side.

More than 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims forcibly displaced from Myanmar live in 33 congested refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, with another 30,000 relocated to Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal. Most of the refugees fled a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine, a state on the western coast of Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

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