The fate of a Rohingya refugee who has chosen to return home rather than remain in Cambodia as part of a controversial resettlement deal with Australia is now in the hands of the Myanmar government, senior officials from both countries said yesterday.
Moe Htet Kyaw, second secretary at the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the refugee had visited the Myanmar Embassy more than a month ago, on August 7, to make his request to return.
“We are now waiting for approval of our government,” he said, requesting the Post not use the word “Rohingya” to describe the refugee’s ethnicity.
“We don’t have any Rohingya in Myanmar; we call them Bengali.”
In a move touted by rights groups as proof of the hollowness of Cambodia’s commitment to resettling refugees, Cambodian officials said the refugee wanted to move back to Myanmar because he was “homesick” after living slightly over two months in Phnom Penh.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that Cambodia and Australia had been notified by the Myanmar Embassy in Phnom Penh of the refugee’s intention to move back to Myanmar, and that as long as the embassy issued the refugee appropriate travel documents, there were no issues with the move.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the Myanmar Embassy [saying] that it depends on the recipient country [Myanmar],” he said.
In exchange for $40 million in aid, Cambodia agreed last September to host refugees collected by Australia in its detention camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. However, only four out of 677 refugees – three Iranians and one Rohingya man from Myanmar – agreed to the transfer, arriving in Phnom Penh in June.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sopheak said the Rohingya man was not pressured to leave Cambodia.
“He was born in 1990; he is still young. He is alone, and loneliness makes him homesick,” he said.
If the refugee’s move is approved by Yangon, the fate that awaits him back in Myanmar remains unclear.
Thousands of Muslim Rohingyas in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have fled the country starting from last year in a bid to escape pervasive discrimination, many dying in the process.
Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which oversees the Phnom Penh villa where the four refugees have been living since June, declined to comment on the specific refugee, but said a case in which a refugee returned to his country of origin would be managed individually.
“We would evaluate it on a case-by-case basis, but yes, definitely it would be coordinated with the [IOM] mission in the country of return. And UNHCR of course,” he wrote via email.
Nevertheless, the refugee’s potential move back to Myanmar has sparked concern from human rights groups.
“Burma regularly denies the existence of the Rohingya, calling them ‘Bengali’ which Rohingya consider pejorative and few will accept -- and so in considering this application, one wonders whether the principle of humanitarian assistance or rights-abusing political terminology will win out,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, which has opposed the deal from the beginning, said that even though Myanmar “remains very dangerous for Rohingyans”, it was no surprise that the refugee wanted to move back.
“The promises made to the refugees when they were in Nauru have not been fulfilled. The possibilities of housing, jobs, education are simply not available.”
According to Rintoul, the refugees have been waiting for promised $10,000 payments to move to Cambodia, but the money has only trickled in.
“There is no genuine resettlement arrangement in Cambodia,” he said.
Cambodian officials yesterday brushed off concerns over Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority.
“The issue of the Rohingya does nothing to affect the MoU [with Australia] and it is not the issue of the government,” said Major General Kem Sarin, director of the Ministry of Interior's refugee office, while speaking with reporters at a conference yesterday.
“The MoU between the Cambodian and Australian governments is valid for four years -- if in this period there is any problem, each party can inform each other about changes or termination.”
The Australian Embassy did not reply to a request for comment.