Amid growing international pressure, Win Myat Aye, an influential Myanmar minister who is overseeing repatriation of the Rohingyas, yesterday met the refugees in Cox's Bazar and assured them to take them back and try to give them citizenship.
The social welfare, relief and resettlement minister, who made a rare trip to the Rohingya camps along with an 11-member delegation from Naypyidaw, also told the refugees that repatriation is a priority of his government and would start as soon as possible.
“The most important thing is to start the repatriation as soon as possible. We can overcome all the difficulties,” Win Myat Aye said as he left a meeting with Rohingya representatives at Kutupalong camp, reports Reuters.
Asked if the Rohingyas could be granted citizenship, which they had been long denied, the minister replied: “We are trying to have that.”
This is the first time a Myanmar minister visited the makeshift camps where more than 700,000 forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals are sheltered amid “ethnic cleansing” by Myanmar army.
Diplomatic sources say the Myanmar minister made the visit following the UN Security Council's decision to visit Bangladesh and Myanmar to see firsthand the situation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas and observe the impact of the crisis in Rakhine.
The UN Security Council is expected to pay a two-day visit to Bangladesh on April 29.
The Myanmar minister along with his delegates is scheduled to fly to Dhaka this morning and hold bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali at the State Guesthouse Padma at 6:00pm.
Though Dhaka hopes that the visit will help speed up repatriation process, officials and experts are sceptical about sincerity of the Myanmar government's readiness to start it soon.
A repatriation official in Cox's Bazar cited the media interview of Win Myat Aye, who said the process would be delayed and they needed more time to verify the list provided by the Bangladesh government.
Rights groups have raised concerns about the safety of returnees being sent to Myanmar, where the authorities have razed many Rohingya villages in Rakhine.
Earlier, the Myanmar minister arrived at Cox's Bazar Airport yesterday morning and went directly to Kutupalong Rohingya shelter centre in Ukhia by road, reports our Cox's Bazar correspondent.
He first talked with government officials, representatives of local and international development agencies and Rohingya community leaders about relief, rehabilitation and repatriation of the refugees at the camp in-charge office.
After the views exchange, the Myanmar minister along with his delegation talked with the refugees, who placed some demands before him. The Myanmar team stayed at the camp for about two and a half hours.
At a press briefing later, the Myanmar minister said his government had been working for taking back the Rohingyas.He had come to Bangladesh to see the current situation himself, he added.
He said both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments had been working unitedly for the repatriation, adding, the Rohingyas would be given citizenship and brought back with proper honour and dignity.
Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mohammad Abdul Kalam said the Myanmar minister had been briefed on overall steps taken by the government for the displaced Myanmar nationals.
Meantime, a 21-member high-level Saudi team led by Dr Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah, general supervisor of Riyadh-based King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid Centre, yesterday visited a shelter centre at Balukhali in Ukhia. They visited KS Relief, IOM activities and a hospital run by the Malaysian government.
The UNHCR, the UN Refugees Agency, and King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) are set to sign a $3 million agreement in Cox's Bazar today to provide emergency responses and relief items to the refugees in urgent need.
The agreement would be signed by Abdullah Al Rabeeah and Khaled Khalifa, regional representative of UNHCR to the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf.
The agreement aims to support and provide emergency relief for the refugees and comes in line with a wider cooperation between UNHCR and King Salman's Centre and in the framework of strategic partnership, bearing in mind the long-term commitment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to supporting the refugees.
As per the Joint Response Plan, the UN and humanitarian partners are asking for $951 million to provide emergency assistance and protection services to 1,300,000 vulnerable refugees, including 336,000 people from the affected Bangladeshi host communities.
Refugee Rehabilitation and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam said they raised Rohingya people's concerns about the condition in Rakhine.
He told The Daily Star by phone that the Rohingya would voluntarily go back only when they feel Rakhine was safe and secure.
The Myanmar minister said they were working to make return of the refugees safe and that they would sign agreements with the UNDP and the UNHCR towards that end.