YANGON: ASEAN's disaster management unit AHA Centre has come out to defend its assessment of the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, following an outcry over the report it had submitted to Myanmar at the end of May.
News agency AFP - citing a leaked report penned by AHA Centre's Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT) - had said on Friday that the assessment glossed over allegations of Myanmar military atrocities in Rakhine State, and ignored the ongoing conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army.
AHA Centre's executive director Adelina Kamal said AFP misinterpreted the assessment.
Speaking to CNA, Ms Adelina said: "I think they have misinterpreted our report. This is why for sensitive issues like this, we need to understand the context and read the entire report.
"Our assessment is very focused – tasked by ASEAN leaders to conduct needs assessment to identify areas that ASEAN can offer to facilitate the repatriation process so it’s very focused - it’s just to facilitate."
ERAT had put together the 60-page Preliminary Needs Assessment report after visiting Rakhine State in March.
"The focus of the report is preliminary assessment. It’s not a repatriation plan. What AFP put out, it seems as if it’s a repatriation plan that will be confined to two years," Ms Adelina said.
AFP had quoted the Preliminary Needs Assessment as predicting that "half a million Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar in two years".
Ms Adelina explained: "Based on our calculations, if Myanmar were to manually process refugees based on its current capacity, which is 300 a day, then it would take six years.
"If we were to automate the process, it can be cut down to two years," she explained.
AFP also quoted Amnesty International as saying that it was "astonishing" the (ERAT) report failed to mention the military atrocities that drove the Rohingya out, the continued segregation of those who remained or ongoing armed conflict in Rakhine.
In late May this year, Amnesty International accused the Myanmar army of committing new "war crimes" in Rakhine amid its ongoing battle with the Arakan Army.
However, Ms Adelina said ERAT had written the report factually, and had worked within its mandate.
In 2018, ASEAN leaders tasked AHA Centre to look at ways to work with Myanmar and facilitate repatriation.
"ASEAN's ERAT has specific areas of expertise – disaster management," Ms Adelina said.
"And so we have been requested by Myanmar to provide assessment for them - it's very focused and we cannot go beyond our mandate," she said.
"We can only recommend how to improve the repatriation process – registration, improving facilities, providing refugees treatment such as how they can get medical access," she said.
In other words, ERAT does not have the authority to focus on issues not tasked to them by ASEAN leaders or Myanmar - including looking into allegations of human rights abuses by the army.
In July 2018, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi appointed Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo to head the Independent Commission of Enquiry, to probe into allegations of serious crimes in Rakhine State.
In September that year, the United Nation's Fact Finding Mission released a 400-page report that said the Myanmar army must be accountable for allegations of genocide, which it said had forced more than 700,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh in August 2017.
AFP had also said the Preliminary Needs Assessment failed to use the term Rohingyas in its report and instead chose the term "Muslims".
In response, Ms Adelina said that it is more important to focus on constructive solutions, and to focus on helping Myanmar.
Ms Adelina said ERAT's Preliminary Needs Assessment covered four major components: Physical safety, material safety, registration of the Rohingyas and cohesion.
She declined to give further details when asked to clarify what aspects of physical safety was covered in the report.
The full report has been handed to the Myanmar government as well as the ASEAN secretariat and will be made public by the government.
ASEAN leaders are set to meet in Thailand on Jun 20, where the issue of Rohingya repatriation is expected to be discussed.
It is likely that ASEAN leaders will then decide if AHA Centre - or any other agency - will need to follow up and take the next step.