Bangladesh's plans to tackle the Rohingya refugee crisis have been stalled until the new year with repatriation and relocation programmes only likely to be revisited following year-end general elections, a top Bangladeshi official said yesterday.
Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Reuters "a new course of action" needed to be adopted on repatriation that took into account refugees' key demands.
More than 720,000 Rohingya fled a sweeping army crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state in 2017, according to UN agencies. The crackdown was launched in response to insurgent Rohingya attacks on security forces.
In late October, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to begin to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled, but the plan has been opposed by the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the UN refugee agency and aid groups, who fear for the safety of Rohingya in Myanmar.
The repatriation of the first batch of 2,200 refugees was to begin officially on November 15, but it stalled amid protests at the refugee camps. None of those on the list agreed to return if their demands for justice, citizenship and the ability to go back to their original villages and lands were not met.
"I don't think anyone's agreeing to go back without these," said Kalam, who last week called on the international community to pressure Myanmar to accept certain "logical and acceptable" demands in order for any repatriation to take place.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya a native ethnic group and calls them "Bengalis", suggesting they belong in Bangladesh. It has agreed to take the Rohingya back and said they would need to accept the National Verification Card, which it says would allow Rohingya to apply for citizenship. The Rohingya reject the card, saying it brands them foreigners.
Kalam said he believed Myanmar needed to propose a "clearer path" to citizenship for the Rohingya if any returns were to take place, adding he would raise the matter at the next bilateral meeting on repatriation, likely to take place next month.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not reachable for comment yesterday.
With Bangladesh now set to go to the polls on December 30, any decision either to repatriate people, or relocate refugees from the crowded camps to Bangladesh's Bhasan Char island will not proceed until 2019, Kalam said.
"Elections are coming up now, so the government will only finalise a future course of action after the elections," said Kalam, adding that Bangladesh remained ready to repatriate refugees if any volunteered to return.
Bangladesh has vowed not to force anyone to return.
Kalam said construction work on alternative housing on Bhasan Char was "nearly complete." He said he was hopeful some refugees would agree to move, given the island's "livelihood opportunities" such as fishing and farming. Aid agencies express caution as the island is prone to flooding.
MYANMAR COPS INJURE 4
Myanmar police shot and injured four Rohingyas yesterday, after detaining two men accused of smuggling people out of a camp for displaced people in western Rakhine state, a witness and police told Reuters.
Some 20 police entered Ah Nauk Ye camp, about 15 km (9 miles) east of the state capital Sittwe in the morning, apprehending the two men accused of owning a boat used in an attempt to smuggle 106 Rohingya out of the country on Friday.
The rickety vessel, which carried 25 children among its passengers, had been bound for Malaysia when authorities stopped it south of Yangon, detaining those on board. The incident, and similar recent boat departures, have raised fears of a fresh wave of dangerous voyages after a 2015 regional crackdown on people smugglers.
Maung Maung Aye, a 27-year-old Rohingya from the camp who witnessed the shooting, told Reuters four people were injured in the incident, with two of them in serious condition.
"People from the camp went out to look and police shot at people," he told Reuters by phone.
Police said the Rohingya surrounded them with swords and threw stones at them, injuring some officers.
"I heard that Bengali from the camp tried to grab the arrested people back from the police and police had to fire warning shots. I heard some Bengali got injured. I don't know the details," said police inspector Than Htay from a nearby police station.
Maung Maung Aye disputed that version of events. He said the Rohingya did not attack the police or try to grab the arrested men. He said police fired at residents and not into the sky.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment.