The seven Rohingya men who were sent back to Myanmar from Moreh Gate No. 2 at 1.30 pm Thursday have been “detained” by Myanmar authorities in an “illegal migrant case” for crossing into India six years ago, an official of the Myanmar Embassy in New Delhi told The Indian Express.
Responding to a questionnaire, an Embassy official said: “Once we received their duly filled National Verification Forms, we checked their validity and sent those forms to our capital for approval. After their national verification had been done by competent Myanmar authorities in Myanmar, our Embassy issued travel documents (we call it Certificate of identity) to them. Those seven people were received by the authority concerned from [Myanmar’s] Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population of Myanmar at Moreh Gate. They are detained for (the) illegal migrant case.”
Asked if the men would be allowed to return to their villages, the official said: “They have been verified. So why won’t we allow them to go back to their villages?”
But it’s not clear how long that would take, with sources at the Moreh-Tamu border saying that the men are likely to face legal proceedings and be jailed for the “illegal border crossing”.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, the seven men belong to Kyauk Daw district in Rakhine. In 2012, there were two waves of communal violence involving Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in Kyauk Taw, leaving scores dead and 6,000 homes burnt. The seven men are believed to be among the thousands who fled Rakhine for Bangladesh that year — Rohingya are not recognised as citizens of Myanmar.
According to a statement from the UNHCR, “The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed his view that the current conditions in Rakhine State in Myanmar are not conducive for safe, dignified and sustainable returns for Rohingya. The core principle of refugee protection is the principle of non-refoulement which is part of customary international law and requires States to refrain from measures that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be in danger. Considering this, these individuals should be allowed to make an informed decision about their return to Myanmar in the current conditions and/or access their right to seek safe asylum.”
The Ministry of External Affairs said that on October 3, the seven men “reconfirmed their willingness” to be sent back to Myanmar.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees, camping in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar, have refused to return to Myanmar unless they are given citizenship, and a rehabilitation plan. Last week, the International Criminal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction to investigate the Rohingya exodus as a crime against humanity.
Myanmar entered into a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh in January, and with the UN in June. But both have been rejected by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as these do not address the core issue of citizenship among others.
Soon after its agreement with Bangladesh, Myanmar set up two “reception centres” in Maungdaw, one at TaungPyoLetWel and another at Nga Khu Ya for the Rohingya. But, according to media sources in Myanmar, there have hardly been any returnees.
Shafiul Mostafa, a refugee who has been living at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh since 1990, told The Indian Express that “no one has returned” from any of the refugee camps there. “We want citizenship first, and we want compensation for what we have suffered. Only then can we think of going back,” said Mostafa, 44.
According to a media source in Yangon, who visited Maungdaw as part of a recent government-organised tour of northern Rakhine, the reception centre is just the first step in a long and complex process of “verification”, involving multiple steps.
At the centre, any returnees must first prove that they are not involved with the Arakkan Rohingya Salvation Army, which has been declared a terrorist organisation in Myanmar. They must also provide exact details of where they lived in Rakhine, and identify landmarks and people there.
If they pass this test, the next step is a “holding centre” or camp, from where they may apply for citizenship under the 1980 citizenship laws although, sources said, hardly any refugee has the documents needed.
Once they obtain a National Verification Card, as opposed to a National Identity Card for citizens, they still cannot go back to their villages, many of which have been taken over by the military. They will be resettled in “new” villages with prefabricated houses — 11 of them are coming up in Maung Daw, and 22 in Buthidaung. India is building 250 such homes in Maung Daw.
“We expect that the government will ask for more in case repatriation proceeds apace,” said an Indian official.
But the fear among the Rohingya is that these villages will remain open prisons. “There will be no freedom of movement. People living there cannot go even as far as Sittwe (the Rakhine capital),” said the media source.