Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali announced on Saturday that the two sides signed a repatriation agreement for the return of the refugees – forced out of their homes in Myanmar in a brutal, state-sponsored campaign widely described as ethnic cleansing – with assistance from the United Nations refugee agency, presstv.com reported.
“Primarily they will be kept at temporary shelters or arrangements for a limited time,” Mahmood Ali said in a press briefing in the nation’s capital of Dhaka, adding that the repatriation process will begin within two month and be completed within a reasonable time.
“The ‘Arrangement’ stipulates that the return shall commence within two months,” a press release from the Bangladeshi government further declared in initial statements about the deal.
While the top Bangladeshi diplomat referred to the deal as a ‘first step,’ senior Myanmar official Myint Kyaing said his country was prepared to receive the Rohingya ‘as soon as possible.’
Rohingya refugee children wait for food at a food distribution center in Thankhali refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia on November 23, 2017. (AFP)
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar after its military launched a bloody campaign against residents of villages across the northern parts of Rakhine State following a number of attacks on security checkpoints on August 25.
Fleeing the brutal campaign of indiscriminate killings and arson attacks, the Muslim refugees sought sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh.
Under the agreement, Myanmar “would restore normalcy in Northern Rakhine (State) and to encourage those who had left Myanmar to return voluntarily and safely to their own households” or “to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice,” said the statement by the Bangladeshi government.
“Myanmar will take all possible measures to see that the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long period of time and their freedom of movement in the Rakhine State will be allowed in conformity with the existing laws and regulations,” it further underlined.
The Bangladeshi minister, however, clarified that since most of the Rohingya villages were burnt during the violence, many would have no choice but to live in temporary shelters.
“Most villages are burnt. So where they will return? There are no houses. Where they will live? It is not possible to physically (return to their houses),” Mahmood Ali added.
However, uncertainty over whether the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would have a role in the repatriation process prompted rights groups to insist on the deployment of outside monitors to safeguard the return of the Rohingya back to Myanmar.
The UNHCR also raised concerns over the agreement on Friday, saying, “At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.”
Many of the refugees, meanwhile, voiced skepticism about returning to Myanmar without solid guarantees about their future safety.
Fatema Khatun is a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar in 1992 following a military crackdown and eventually returned to the country before fleeing again recently.
Rohingya refugees are seen at the Hakimpara refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia on November 24, 2017. (AFP)
She is now living in makeshift housing near the border in Bangladesh.
Khatun told Reuters that her latest displacement experience was much worse, saying that Myanmar soldiers kicked and slashed babies and threw them into the houses which had been set ablaze.
“I cannot trust the Myanmar government. If the international community promises to keep us safe and if there are people there to protect us, we will go. If they send us back without this (guarantee), we will be persecuted again,” she emphasized.
According to the report, another refugee identified as Abdul Hamid was still a boy when he first came to Bangladesh and does not remember everything about the first trip, but he described the current one as terrifying.
He expressed willingness to return back though he also remains fearful about protection and the issue of citizenship.
“We’ve been complaining about the persecution against us for the past 26 years. We’ve complained to every kind of UN delegation, whenever we complained about our persecution to the UN the Myanmar government just persecutes us more, and we didn't even get one percent of our rights,” he added.
In another development, Myanmar’s top military general announced in a statement that he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Friday and discussed China’s support for his country.
According to a statement on the Facebook page of Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing, he and the Xi discussed the “promotion of cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries, the situation of China standing on Myanmar’s side at the forefront of the international community regarding the Rakhine issue,” and other issues.
Hlaing arrived in China on Tuesday and has mainly held talks with Chinese military officers during his visit.