In refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the tenements of 477 Rohingya families have been tagged by the government. Just over 2,000 members of these families will be repatriated to their home country of Myanmar in the first phase of an exercise that will begin on November 15.

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority community from Myanmar’s Rakhine state who have faced persecution in the predominantly Buddhist nation for around four decades now. More than 7,00,000 Rohingyas are believed to have fled Myanmar and settled in camps in Bangladesh since September 2017, when the Myanmarese military launched a fresh offensive against the community under the guise of cracking down on extremist groups.

This list of refugees for the first phase of repatriation was given to the Bangladesh government by Myanmar Foreign Secretary Myint Thu, who came to Cox’s Bazaar on October 31 to hold meetings with Rohingya groups and senior Bangladesh government officials.

At the meetings, Rohingya leaders demanded several assurances from Myanmar. They demanded citizenship for the repatriated Rohingyas; that human rights groups be allowed into their areas of domicile to ensure their security and that the forces in charge of their security be made accountable to the international community; and freedom of movement within Myanmar and compensation for their properties taken over by Buddhist groups and security forces, Rohingya leaders in Bangladesh told over the phone on Wednesday.

They said that Thu did not promise them anything but told them that he would discuss the matter with the ministries concerned in Myanmar and soon return with word on these demands. More than a week since that meeting, Thu is yet to bring back any assurances from Myanmar. Despite this, the Bangladesh government has shown no sign of stepping back from the repatriation process, said the Rohingya leaders.

The repatriation is the result of a pact signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017 and numerous agreements signed over the past few years, government officials in Bangladesh said.

Repatriation concerns

In February, Bangladesh had sent a list of around 8,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar, asking it to verify their identities. On October 28, three days before Thu’s visit, it sent a list of around another 22,000 Rohingyas to Myanmar as candidates for repatriation. “So far, Myanmar is done with the identity verification of around 4,800 Rohingyas whose names were sent by Bangladesh,” said Mohammad Abul Kalam, head of the refugee relief and repatriation office in Bangladesh.

He added that his government has made sure that the 2,000 people being repatriated in the first phase will not be separated from their families. “The 477 families in the first phase have been chosen in such a way that no member of the family is left here with an unverified identity,” said Kalam. “This will enable all members of these families to be repatriated at one go and they will not be separated even temporarily. We shall try implementing the same protocol for the upcoming phases too.”

However, Kalam refrained from commenting on the assurances demanded from Myanmar by members of Rohingya community. He said that these are under the jurisdiction of his agency’s counterpart in Myanmar – the Joint Working Group – which is also headed by Thu.

Repatriation in batches

Two journalists who were present in the latest briefing by the Joint Working Group in Cox’s Bazaar told that the repatriation is supposed to take place in batches. Both countries have constructed repatriation centres on each side of the Naf river, the border of southeastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar.

The 2,000 Rohingyas will first be sent to the centres on the Bangladesh side where further negotiation on their demands is expected. Only after that are they expected to be moved to the centres in Myanmar, where thousands of Rohingyas who failed to cross into Bangladesh over the past year are being detained. However, there is uncertainty over what happens to them after that.

Some Rohingya leaders have a plan. “Some Rohingyas are presently under detention in the camps on the Myanmar side,” said Dil Mohammed, a Rohingya leader in the Tambru camp, a border area that is formally in Myanmar’s territory but is often referred to as no-man’s land. “We shall ask the Myanmar government to send them to their villages first. We shall agree to cross the border only when we get a green signal from the released community members.”

On October 4, India deported seven Rohingya men from a detention centre in Assam to Myanmar, from where they had fled around six years ago. This was the first official deportation of Rohingyas from India. The Indian Supreme Court refused to intervene in the matter after it was convinced by the Centre that Myanmar had accepted the refugees as citizens and had agreed to take them back. However, documents seen by show that these men have not been recognised as citizens by Myanmar. The government of Myanmar has issued them with national verification cards – a document that it described as the first step towards applying for citizenship. But these cards will not bring the refugees citizenship as the Rohingya community is not listed as a “national race” in the country’s Citizenship Act. Under this 1982 law, being listed as a “national race” is a pre-condition for citizenship.

This has raised major concerns regarding the overall repatriation process concerning Rohingyas. The United Nations too has condemned the deal struck between Myanmar and Bangladesh, with its refugee agency saying that it had not been consulted.