Myanmar, Bangladesh agree to return Rohingya refugees in two years


Officials in Bangladesh and Myanmar announced the first concrete deadline for returning hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Myanmar on Tuesday, following a joint meeting in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw.

The repatriation plan, which Myanmar said would start next Tuesday, seeks to return the refugees “within two years from the commencement of repatriation.”

The deal applies to the estimated 650,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar and entered Bangladesh following two major outbreaks of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since October 2016.

The most recent bout of violence started last August when Rohingya militant group attacked police posts, prompting the military to carry out a brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority.

The repatriation agreement does not apply to the approximately 200,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh to escape previous military crackdowns prior to October 2016.

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Hundreds to be returned each day

The Bangladeshi government said in a statement that it would set up five transit camps on its side of the border to prepare Rohingya to be sent to two reception centers on the Myanmar side of the border.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said at least 500 Hindus and 500 Muslims will be in the first group to return.

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The government statement also calls for repatriating orphans as well as “children born out of unwarranted incidence,” which appeared to reference cases of rape that resulted in pregnancy.

The United Nations and activists have said the rape of Rohingya women by Myanmar security forces was widespread. The United States has said the military’s response amounted to “ethnic cleansing.”

The military denies, however, that it was involved in the sexual assaults and rejects claims that it carried out ethnic cleansing operations.

UN, aid groups wary of deal

The UN warned on Tuesday that all of the repatriations must be voluntary and that the Rohingya refugees should be returned to their place of origin.

“UNHCR believes any returns should be based on informed and voluntary decisions by the refugees themselves. The pace of return would be determined when refugees feel the time and circumstances are right,” a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman said.

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The UNHCR also raised concerns over making sure that the safety of the refugees is ensured.

Amnesty International decried the two-year limit was “an impossible timetable” and urged for Myanmar’s government to alter its stance towards the stateless Muslim minority.

“Until this system is dismantled, there can be no safe or dignified returns,” the group’s Myanmar researcher, Laura Haigh, told Germany-based news agency dpa.

Although they have been living in majority-Buddhist Myanmar for generations, Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship and are regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first for the joint working group that was established to negotiate the details of an initial repatriation agreement that the two countries signed in November.

rs/kms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)