Hamid Hussain, a 71-year-old Rohingya Muslim farmer, first fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in 1992. He went home the next year under a repatriation deal between the two neighbors, only to repeat the journey last September when violence flared once more.
Officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh meet on Monday to discuss how to implement another deal, signed on Nov. 23, on the return of more than 650,000 Rohingya who have escaped an army crackdown since late August. Hussain is one of many who say they fear this settlement may be no more permanent than the last.
“Bangladesh authorities had assured us that Myanmar would give us back our rights, that we would be able to live peacefully,” said Hussain, who now lives in a makeshift refugee camp in southeast Bangladesh.
“We went back but nothing changed. I will go back again only if our rights and safety are guaranteed – forever.”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has for years denied Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to many basic services such as healthcare and education. They are considered illegal immigrants from mainly Muslim Bangladesh.
The authorities have said returnees could apply for citizenship if they can show their forebears have lived in Myanmar. But the latest deal – like the one in 1992 – does not guarantee citizenship and it is unclear how many would qualify.
Monday’s meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw will be the first for a joint working group set up to hammer out the details of the November repatriation agreement. The group is made up of civil servants from both countries.
Two senior Bangladesh officials who are involved in the talks acknowledged that much was left to be resolved and it was unclear when the first refugees could actually return. One of the key issues to be worked out was how the process for jointly verifying the identities of returnees would work, they said.
“Any return is chaotic and complex,” said Shahidul Haque, Bangladesh’s top foreign ministry official who will lead Dhaka’s 14-member team in the talks. “The challenge is to create an environment conducive for their return.”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said returnees would be able to apply for citizenship “after they pass the verification process”.
Zaw Htay added that Myanmar had proposed that a group of 500 Hindus who fled to Bangladesh and have already agreed to be repatriated, alongside 500 Muslims, could form the first batch of returnees.
“The first repatriation is important – we can learn from the experiences, good or bad,” he said.