An Asean report predicting half a million Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar in two years has left observers incredulous for glossing over army atrocities, ignoring an ongoing civil war in Rakhine state and failing to mention the persecuted Muslim minority by name.
The leaked report, penned by the Southeast Asian bloc’s “Emergency Response and Assessment Team” (Asean-ERAT) and seen by AFP, is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
It gives a glowing assessment of Myanmar’s efforts to entice Rohingya refugees back from Bangladesh, where some 740,000 have taken shelter in fetid, overcrowded camps, reports AFP.
They joined some 300,000 others who had fled earlier waves of violence in the Southeast Asian country where they have been denied citizenship since 1982.
Claiming to root out insurgents, Myanmar’s military drove the Rohingya from Rakhine and over the border in a 2017 crackdown, the latest in several waves of persecution.
Evidence of widespread murder, rape and arson prompted UN investigators to call for the prosecution of top Myanmar generals for “genocide”.
The two countries signed a repatriation deal in November 2017 but so far virtually no Rohingya have volunteered to return out of fear for their safety and rights.
The “Preliminary Needs Assessment for Repatriation in Rakhine State, Myanmar”, works off the basis of 500,000 Rohingya returning, according to the AFP.
That is the official number of refugees given by Myanmar, well below figures from Bangladesh and the UN.
The word “Rohingya” is not used in the report, which instead refers to the community as “Muslims”.
It claims automated rather than manual processing of returnees would mean repatriation will be “completed in a little more than two years”.
The report praises Myanmar on efforts to ensure “smooth and orderly” returns, echoing the Southeast Asian country’s view that delays in repatriation are due to bungled paperwork by Bangladeshi officials.
Bangladesh puts the blame for the setback on Myanmar and says no refugees have yet volunteered to return.
Amnesty International said it was “astonishing” the report failed to mention the military atrocities that drove the Rohingya out, the continued segregation of those who remained or ongoing armed conflict in Rakhine.
The rights group last week accused the military of committing new “war crimes” in the state as it battles against ethnic Rakhine rebels.
“It’s ludicrous to think that returns in this context could be safe, voluntary or dignified,” the group’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh told AFP.
An estimated 400,000 Rohingya still live in Rakhine often in conditions Amnesty has likened to “open-air prisons”, languishing in camps or villages for years with scant access to healthcare or education.
The Asean report dismissed the movement restrictions as “short-term inconveniences” and also said local communities “felt safe” around Border Guard Police (BGP) units accused of helping drive the Rohingya out.
Asean-ERAT could not immediately be reached for comment.
The 10-nation bloc normally sticks to diplomatic niceties and refuses to interfere in the internal affairs of member states although Malaysia has openly condemned Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Critics accuse Myanmar of playing for time by choosing to bring in Asean on the issue of repatriation — a bloc more sympathetic than the West or the UN.
But Asean will not “enhance the (global) credibility of the process in a significant way,” said Soe Myint Aung from the Yangon Centre for Independent Research (YCIR).
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened a preliminary probe into military abuses against the Rohingya
The UN refused to comment on the report before receiving it officially.
‘Conditions Must Improve’
In light of the repatriation deal, some 300 Rohingya can return to Myanmar per day, said Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam.
This means it will take about a decade for all of the nearly 1 million Rohingya to go back home, he told The Daily Star.
Expansion of logistics and other facilities can be negotiated with Myanmar, but that is not the major issue here, he said.
The major issues that Rohingya demand are guarantee of citizenship, freedom of movement and safety once they return home. They also want to return to their places of origin, not to temporary camps, he added.
On the claim of delay from the Bangladesh side, the official said there was no reason for Bangladesh to do so. The only thing that Bangladesh wants is sustainable and safe repatriation so that they are not forced to flee to Bangladesh again.
“The conditions in Myanmar must improve for Rohingya repatriation,” he said, adding that the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals raised this issue when the first batch of Rohingya was scheduled to return in November last year.