YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate Rohingya displaced by an army crackdown within two years, Dhaka said Tuesday, the first concrete timeline for a return of hundreds of thousands of refugees even as conditions for their homecoming remain uncertain.
The deal, hammered out in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw this week, applies to approximately 750,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar in two major outbreaks of violence since October 2016, when militants from the stateless Muslim minority first attacked border-guard posts in northern Rakhine state.
A statement by the Bangladeshi government said the agreement aims to return Rohingya “within two years from the commencement of repatriation”.
The statement did not give a date for when refugees will start returning, although Myanmar’s government has said it is on track to welcome returnees from January 23.
The deal does not cover the estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees who were living in Bangladesh prior to October 2016, driven out by previous rounds of communal violence and military crackdowns.
The countries had finally agreed on the form refugees will need to fill out to verify their belonging in Rakhine state, where hundreds of Rohingya villages were incinerated by an extensive army ‘clearance operation’ last August.
While thin on details, Dhaka said the verification form would be based on “family units” and include orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence.”
“We should be able to start the process in the coming days,” Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar, Mohammad Sufiur Rahman, told AFP.
He ruled out Myanmar’s stated deadline of next week for starting Rohingya repatriation as “not possible”.
Myanmar has faced intense diplomatic pressure to allow the safe return of Rohingya refugees driven out by its army, a campaign the UN and US have described as ethnic cleansing.
Last week the army for the first time admitted to an atrocity when it said security forces had taken part in the massacre of what it described as 10 Rohingya “terrorists”.
The murdered men were in their custody days after militant raids on police post prompted the unrelenting crackdown.
Many Rohingya in the crowded, unsanitary camps in Bangladesh say they will not return to Rakhine, having fled atrocities including murder, rape and arson attacks on their homes.
Rights groups and UN investigtors say they have gathered comprehensive testimony of massacres and campaings of sexual violence against Rohingya women, while satellite photos show the complete destruction of scores of Rohingya villages.
Aid agencies have stressed the need for a safe and voluntary return for repatriation to be considered legitimate.
“We believe that the pace of the return should be dictated by the refugees themselves. That it’s really important to hear what they want, and they have been telling us that before they return they would like to see certain conditions in place,” Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency told AFP.
Repeated rounds of violence since the 1970s have sent the Rohingya fleeing across the narrow neck of water that separates Rakhine from Bangaldesh.
Some refugees have never returned, while others have been repatriated in previous deals only to be forced out by fresh vioelnce.
The UN’s Tan said Rohingya in Bangladesh have cited their legal status in Myanmar and a safe environment as conditions for their return.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group entitled to rights protections or citizenships and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many living there for generations.
Under the deal, Bangladesh said it would establish 5 “transit camps” to process refugees into two reception centres in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Despite repatriation concerns authorities in Myanmar have pressed ahead with the construction of a “temporary camp” in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
Eventually the site “will accommodate about 30,000 people in its 625 buildings” before they can be resettled permanently, Myanmar’s state media reported this week.
But only a fraction of the buildings have been finished. Myanmar authorities were not immediately reachable for comment.