Since August of 2017, over 700,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar and settled in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The Myanmar government just visited the refugee camps in an apparent effort to repatriate the refugees.
After a delayed process of Muslim Rohingya refugee repatriation, the Myanmar government sent officials to Bangladesh on Wednesday, posed to consult and encourage the return of hundreds of thousands to their home state.
Myanmar Minister for Social Welfare Win Myat Aye spent the first day of his visit at the Kutupalong refugee camp, speaking with families and Bangladesh officials, who turned over a list of 8,000 names who elected to return to their homeland.
The Bangladesh foreign affairs and home affairs ministries will use their time with Myat Aye to discuss the roadblocks and delays that led the Myanmar government to approve less than 500 of those applicants for repatriation, according to Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Why are Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar?
Since August 2017, about 700,000 individuals have left the northern Rakhine State and fled to Bangladesh. This exodus was spurred by a wave of persecution against the Muslim faith minority group in a majority Buddhist nation.
The Myanmar military publicly labels the persecution as a counterinsurgency, reactive and defensive in response to attacks on Buddhist police officers carried out by Rohingya Muslim rebels.
However, the fleeing families have shared stories of persistent rape, massacre, looting and complete destruction of the villages they called home.
Officially, Myanmar has denied most narrative accounts. In a rare event, the army announced on Tuesday that seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in jail for participating in the execution of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in September. This massacre was made public by a story published by Reuters, which resulted in the arrest of two Reuters Yangon-based journalists.
The majority of refugees who reached Bangladesh have moved into the Kutupalong refugee camp located along the coastal region bordering Myanmar, an area known as Cox’s Bazar.
Can Myanmar repatriate all 700,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees?
“The most important thing is to the start the repatriation process as soon as possible,” Myat Aye said when visiting Rohingya representatives at Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday. “We can overcome all of the difficulties.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed a bilateral agreement to work to repatriate the over half-million refugees months ago, and not one has successfully returned to Myanmar as of April.
Win Myat Aye credits the delays to logistical flaws in the repatriation application forms of the Muslim Rohingya Refugees.
“It didn’t turn out the way we expected it to,” Myat Aye said. “If the refugees had filled out the forms according to the agreement, the process would be faster than it is right now.”
New infrastructure and refugee processing centers have been constructed in the Rakhine State to house those returning, but there are also additional military bases on site, according to a report published by Amnesty International.
Some local councilors also suggested that there are Buddhist and Christian families from the ethnic Marma and Mro tribes being recruited from Bangladesh and paid to settle in the Rakhine state, in exchange for land and food provisions.
“They are going there to fill up the land vacated by the Rohingya who have left Burma (Myanmar),” local councilor Muing Swi Thwee told AFP news agency on April 2.
On Thursday, minister Myat Aye will travel to Dhaka and continue to discuss repatriation plans with the Bangladesh minister of foreign affairs.