Burma Processing Refugee’s Request to Return

Burmese and Cambodian officials said Monday that a Rohingya refugee who has asked to return home after failing to make it to Australia could be back in Burma in a matter of weeks, as soon as Naypyidaw approves his request for repatriation.

The man, whose identity has been kept a secret, landed in Phnom Penh on June 4 along with three Iranians—the first group to be moved here from Australia’s refugee camp on the island of Nauru as part of a controversial resettlement deal Cambodia and Australia signed a year ago. On Sunday, the Interior Ministry said the man had grown lonely and homesick, and wanted to go back to Burma.

On Monday, the head of the ministry’s refugee department, Kerm Sarin, said that because the man was granted refugee status here, he will be issued a travel visa by Cambodia once Burma approves his return.

“He has communicated with the Burmese Embassy and we are waiting for Burma to issue the paper to pave the way. When the Burmese Embassy hands us the permission letter, Cambodia will issue a visa and then he can return to his homeland,” he said.

Moe Htet Kyaw, second secretary at the Burmese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the refugee’s request had been received and was forwarded on to Naypyidaw last week.

“The Myanmar Embassy has already submitted [the request] to our government, and we need to wait for the government to approve,” he said, using the Burmese government’s preferred name for the country. “Normally the government takes a month.”

Though the Rohingya have been living in Burma for generations, mostly in the country’s western Rakhine state, the government refuses to legally recognize them as a distinct minority and insists that they identify themselves as Bengali. Mr. Htet Kyaw said the refugee had obliged upon requesting to return home.

“Once he came to the embassy, he said himself he was Bengali,” he said. “We have no Rohingya in Myanmar; we have only, we call them Bengali.”

In Burma, the movement and rights of the Rohingya are severely restricted, and earlier this year, their temporary registration certificates were canceled by the thousands, effectively revoking their right to vote. Many people were killed in large-scale attacks on the Rohingya in 2012, and more than 100,000 have since fled the country by boat, according to the U.N.

Mr. Sarim, however, said he believed the refugee asking to go back would be safe.

“He sees that his country has peace and freedom and he wants to go back home, so he has the right to return,” he said. “In Burma, he will not face any threats or punishment, so he can reclaim his former nationality.”

Refugee advocates say the man’s decision to return to the country he fled from is a reflection of the resettlement scheme’s failure to give him a viable alternative.

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