With India handing over 250 pre-fabricated houses for the first batch of refugees who are willing to return, Myanmar is likely to send its foreign secretary to the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh — at New Delhi’s gentle nudge. Faced with social, religious and ethnic persecution, these families left Myanmar for Bangladesh, in boats, two years ago.
Sources said that while India has built and handed over these houses to the Rakhine provincial government, the visit by Myanmar’s top diplomat — possibly later this month — to the Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh will work towards assuaging the safety and security concerns of the displaced families.
By getting top Myanmar officials to address the refugees who have fled the country since August 2017, India believes it will create an atmosphere wherein the families who are willing to return to their country will have the “confidence to go back and settle down”. Delhi is also keen that the “community leaders” should address these refugees, acting as a guarantor of their security.
This is one of the key steps being taken by Myanmar, at the prodding of India, so that the displaced families “feel safe” and stay in these newly built houses.
Ultimately, sources said, Bangladesh has “limited capacity” to host these 1 million refugees, and India’s efforts are towards minimising the social and economic burden on Dhaka as well.
India has also been facing criticism for not hosting any Rohingya refugees after August 2017, although it has 40,000 refugees from earlier. So far, 16 Rohingya refugees have been sent back to Myanmar in the last two years.
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Apart from building houses, India is also planning to build hospitals, schools, small bridges and culverts in Rakhine state, and wants others like China, Japan and other ASEAN countries to pitch in to create a social and economic ecosystem, sources said. “That is the broad message we would like to convey to the international community,” said a source.
Earlier this week, the Indian government handed over a batch of pre-fabricated houses, constructed under the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP). India has so far committed $ 25 million for executing projects identified by Myanmar.
These housing units are spread over three locations — 148 in Shwe Zar, 60 in Kyein Chaung Taung and 42 in Nan Thar Taung. Myanmar has allocated these units to the Hindu, Muslim and Rakhine communities. Sources say the new houses are within 3 km of the villagers’ previous homes, so that they can go back to their original eco-system. These families are mostly engaged in farming and fishing, sources said.
Each house is prefabricated (housing parts are assembled on site) and is around 40 sq m, roughly the size of a one-BHK flat in Delhi. They have been designed to survive earthquakes, cyclonic storms and are said to be rust-free and water-proof.
The pre-fabricated houses are part of an agreement signed between the two countries in December 2017, when then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar (now the External Affairs Minister) visited Myanmar.
This comes as Myanmar works towards bringing some sort of normalcy in northern Rakhine amid armed clashes with the Arakan Army and the delayed repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, where over 1 million fled following a violent crackdown in Rakhine in August 2017.
While the first batch of 50 houses were handed over to Myanmar by President Ram Nath Kovind during his visit in December 2018, the remaining houses were handed over by Indian ambassador Saurabh Kumar on July 9. High-level dignitaries from Myanmar, including Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Dr Win Mya Aye, and Minister for Electricity, Industry and Transportation Rakhine State, U Aung Kyaw Zan, were present at the handing-over ceremony.
While India has made a beginning, China has also promised to build about 1,000 houses. Sources said that countries like China, Japan and other ASEAN countries can also pitch in with several infrastructure projects in the area, and can lean on the Myanmar government to provide security to the returning families.