Aid agencies in the dark on Rohingya repatriation plans

At Shabrang Harbor in Teknaf, at the Bangladesh border, newly arrived refugees just off boats from Myanmar, carry all that they have as they wait to register as refugees in country. Photo by: Mahmud Rahman for CRS / Caritas Bangladesh / CC BY-ND

BANGKOK — The agreed upon date of January 22 for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees is fast approaching — but if action to move forward does begin as originally dictated, it’s unlikely that aid agencies in Cox’s Bazar will be prepared to assist.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which Bangladesh and Myanmar officials agreed will be involved in repatriation implementation “as needed at the appropriate time,” according to the document text, has heard no updates of current plans, nor received an invitation to a future meeting or negotiation.

In late November, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an initial deal for the voluntary repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, and specified that the process begin rapidly within two months. At the same time, the officials agreed to establish a 30-member joint working group, headed by their foreign secretaries, in order to develop verification, transport and logistical arrangement, and reception procedures.  

It’s unclear what progress the working group has made, although the first meeting is scheduled to be held no later than January 15, according to reporting from Bangladesh’s The Daily Star.

UNHCR was not party to the original agreement, but Vivian Tan, UNHCR regional press officer, told Devex: “We hope to play a constructive role in implementing the modalities of the arrangement in line with international standards.”

“This has yet to happen and we do not have details of what both governments are planning. We have been seeking clarification and in the meantime have noted news reports quoting officials of both countries,” she added.

The news reports are two Daily Star articles, one detailing the formation of the joint working group and the other citing confusion about a recent announcement made by Myanmar’s Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye, who claimed that repatriation would start on January 22 with a group of Hindu refugees. Bangladesh officials said that was not the case and they had not decided on any joint meetings.

The ongoing confusion and lack of communication doesn’t bode well for a repatriation process that already has human rights groups raising the alarm. It remains to be seen whether certain conditions — that the returns be voluntary and safe, that the Rohingya play a role in the planning and management of the process, and that Myanmar provide the presently stateless returnees full citizenship — will be honored. The Myanmar government severely restricted the minority’s access to basic services and denied citizenship prior to the brutal military crackdown that sent thousands of Rohingya fleeing cross the border to Bangladesh in August. Security forces and government-backed groups razed tens of thousands of homes, limiting the options of a safe return for many.

As it stands, the repatriation arrangement fails to identify those who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh either as Rohingya or as refugees, noted Human Rights Watch in a letter to the two governments. The text of the arrangement requires such significant amendments, the letter states, that it should be suspended until those changes are made.  

The International Organization for Migration, which leads the Inter Sector Coordination Group and site management in Cox’s Bazar, has also “had absolutely no official involvement with this at all,” IOM Communications Officer Fiona MacGregor told Devex. “So we’re not in a position to plan anything around it.”

In the meantime, aid groups continue to respond to the overwhelming needs faced by more than 800,000 refugees in Bangladesh’s district of Cox’s Bazar. Some 50 percent of the general population of Rohingya is malnourished and anemic, according to the latest IOM situation report, and health actors are battling an outbreak of the contagious bacterial infection diphtheria.

IOM is currently pulling together data for a new plan to replace the current six-month U.N.-coordinated joint response plan — which called for $434 million, stands 50 percent funded, and runs through February.

Read more Devex coverage on the Rohingya crisis.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.