DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Tuesday to begin by November the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar army crackdown, though doubts about a speedy return are likely to persist.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed from the west of mostly Buddhist Myanmar into Bangladesh from August last year after Rohingya insurgent attacks on the Myanmar security forces triggered a sweeping military response.
“We are looking forward to start the repatriation by mid-November,” Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque told reporters in Dhaka after a meeting with a Myanmar delegation led by senior foreign ministry official Myint Thu.
Myint Thu hailed what he called a “very concrete result on the commencement of the repatriation”.
“We have put in place a number of measures to make sure that the returnees will have a secure environment for their return,” he told reporters.
However, the U.N. refugee agency said conditions in Rakhine state were “not yet conducive for returns”, stressing that they must be voluntary. Necessary safeguards are “absent” in the region, where it has had only limited access amid continuing restrictions for media and other independent observers, it said.
“It is critical that returns are not rushed or premature,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told Reuters in Geneva. “We would advise against imposing any timetable or target figures for repatriation.”
Leaders of the largely stateless Rohingya community have said they will not return without various demands being met, including the right to Myanmar citizenship.
“We have some demands but the government of Myanmar didn’t do anything to meet them. How can we go back?” said Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya leader now living in southeast Bangladesh.
“What about our citizenships, our rights and our demand to go back to our land ... our own houses?”
The Myanmar delegation will visit the Rohingya camps in the border district of Cox’s Bazaar on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh’s foreign minister said Myanmar had cleared the list of 8,000 Rohingya people sent by Dhaka for verification after last year’s deal.
The two countries first reached a deal last November to begin repatriation within two months, but it has not started.
Rohingya are still crossing the border into Bangladesh, with nearly 14,000 arriving this year, according to U.N. officials.
U.N. rights investigators issued a report in August accusing Myanmar’s military of acting with “genocidal intent” and calling for the country’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.
Myanmar has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Reuters last month that under no circumstance would the refugees be allowed to remain permanently.
Hasina, who faces a general election at the end of the year, also accused Myanmar of finding new excuses to delay the return.
Myanmar, however, has blamed Bangladesh for the delay and says it is ready to take back the refugees and has built transit centres to house them initially on their return.
Given the delays, Bangladesh has been preparing new homes on a remote island called Bhasan Char, which rights groups have said could be subject to flooding.
Reporting and writing by Ruma Paul in Dhaka; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Gareth Jones