The latest agreement on repatriation of the Rohingyas may not be as effective as the two previous deals signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 1978 and 1992 respectively.
A thorough examination of the latest deal signed between the two countries also signals Myanmar's reluctance to take back their nationals who have taken shelter in Bangladesh fleeing the military violence in their homeland.
The deal was signed on November 23 amid concerns by rights bodies over the absence of an atmosphere conducive to repatriation. Myanmar has tightened both the criteria for eligibility for the Rohingya's return and the verification process, making the prospect of repatriation this time almost impossible.
The situation in 1978 was not so harsh for the Rohingyas. They had citizenships in Myanmar. The then deal had made the criteria simple for their return. Presentation of national registration cards or any documents issued in Myanmar indicating their residence in Myanmar were enough for them to go back to their homes.
They even did not need to go through any verification process. The deal also stipulated a six month time frame for completion of the repatriation process. About 200,000 Rohingyas who took shelter in camps in Bangladesh fleeing violence in Myanmar were repatriated.
Rohingyas who had to cross the border again into Bangladesh in 1991-1992 fleeing fresh military violence in Myanmar, however, had to face difficulty to return to their homes due to introduction of the verification process in the 1992 deal.
Rohingyas who lost their citizenships due to a draconian law in 1982 were required to submit documents like Myanmar citizenship identity cards or other documents to pass scrutiny.
Refugee registration cards issued by Bangladesh government were, however, considered as documents in the verification process run by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, that set up a sub-office to process the job.
In this process, around 200,000 Rohingya refugees were able to return. Yet, around 30,000 were left behind in Bangladesh as they were unable to present sufficient documentation.
But Myanmar has tightened the noose this time. According to the new agreement, Myanmar authorities, not UNHCR, will conduct the verification process and the Rohingyas will have to submit documents like copies of expired citizenship identity cards or national registration cards or other relevant documents to prove their past residency in Myanmar.
This is something many Rohingyas will find hard to do as whatever documents they had were either burned with their houses or destroyed in their flight through the monsoon rains.
Unlike 1992, refugee registration cards issued by the Bangladesh government will not be considered this time for their repatriation.
Moreover, separated family members and orphans left behind will require to be certified by a Bangladesh court to be eligible for repatriation.
UNHCR will have a back seat in the process this time. Additionally, Myanmar authorities will also verify the refugee documents issued by UNHCR. In the end it will be Myanmar's discretion whether to take assistance of UNHCR.
The deal does not specify any timeframe for completion of the verification process. What Myanmar's Minister of Social Welfare and Resettlement, Win Myat Aye, said recently about the verification is more alarming. He said Myanmar government could verify 300 potential returnees a day. This means at that rate the process of verifying around 700,000 Rohingyas refugees since October last year will take years to complete.
There are more things for the Rohingyas to be concerned about. After the repatriation in 1978 and 1992, the Rohingyas were able to return to their homes. But this time, many of them will not be able to go back as their houses were burned and razed.
According to the new agreement, they will be settled in temporary places at Dar Gyi Zar village, about 20 kilometers from Maungdaw near the Bangladesh border. It is one of the areas hit hard by the violence that began on August 25 that developed into a full-blown refugee and humanitarian crisis.
In the agreement, the Myanmar government, however, promised not to keep them at temporary holdings for long time. But the fate of more than one lakh Rohingya living in inhuman condition in the camps inside Myanmar after they were displaced in the violence of 2012 is testimony enough of the Myanmar government's hostile attitude towards the Rohingya. International human rights organisations and leaders labelled the camps as modern day Nazi concentration camps.
The new agreement is only for the repatriation of those who entered Bangladesh after the violence in October last year and August this year. Rohingyas who crossed into Bangladesh earlier will be considered for repatriation after conclusion of the current agreement. This means they will have to wait for an indefinite period in the camps in Bangladesh.
Considering the above difficulties, Dhaka did not agree in early October to Myanmar's proposal of following the criteria of the 1992 deal to take back the Rohingyas.
The reasons were clear as explained by Foreign Minster AH Mahmood Ali in a diplomatic briefing on October 9: the 1992 criteria is not “realistic” and the “situation of 1992 and current situation are entirely different.”
Dhaka clarified its position a week after Myanmar Union Minister Kyaw Tint Swe during his visit to Dhaka proposed to follow the criteria of the 1992 deal.
But one and a half months down the line, Mahmood Ali agreed with Myanmar's proposal and signed an agreement during his recent visit to Naypyidaw.
This development came within a week after the Chinese foreign minister's visit to Dhaka and Naypyidaw. China has been protecting Myanmar from the international community's pressure and action and it is also backing a bilateral resolution of the crisis.
Signing the agreement made China's efforts successful and made it easy for Myanmar to buy more time to breathe and to ease international pressure on it. But for the Rohingyas, the coming days may appear more uncertain and the burden on Bangladesh will grow heavier.