BANGLADESH said on Tuesday that it will complete the process of returning all Rohingya Muslim refugees to Burma (Myanmar) within two years, after the neighbours met to implement a pact signed last year.
A statement by the Bangladesh Foreign ministry did not say when the process would begin, but said that the return effort envisages “considering the family as a unit,” with Burma providing temporary shelter for those returning before rebuilding houses for them.
Burmese state media reported on Monday that the government is building a temporary camp to house 30,000 Rohingya Muslims targeted for repatriation – only a fraction of the over 650,000 people that have fled into Bangladesh since Aug 25.
The United Nations warned on Tuesday that Rohingya refugees must be informed about conditions in Burma’s northern Rakhine state before they are allowed to return voluntarily and in safety. Almost one million Rohingya are now residing in Cox’s Bazar in the south of Bangladesh.
Officials from the two countries met on Monday to discuss a repatriation deal signed on Nov 23. The meeting in Burma’s capital Naypyitaw was the first for a joint working group set up to hammer out the details of the agreement.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said a camp in Hla Po Khaung in northern Rakhine will be a temporary transition camp for people who are to be “accepted systematically” for repatriation.
“The 124-acre Hla Po Khaung will accommodate about 30,000 people in its 625 buildings,” the newspaper said, adding that some 100 buildings will be completed by end of January.
Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of Burma’s Enterprises for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development, told Reuters that the camp in Hla Po Khaung will be a “transition place” for Rohingya refugees before they are repatriated to their “place of origin” or the nearest settlement to their place of origin.
“We will try to accept all of those who are coming back to Myanmar,” he said, adding that to verify returnees’ residency, they will be sent to assessment camps in Taungpyoletwei or Ngakhuya before they are moved to the Hla Po Khaung camp.
Soe Aung, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said returnees will spend “at least one or two months” in Hla Po Khaung before their new homes are built.
It is unclear, however, how many returnees would qualify for Burmese citizenship. The authorities have said Rohingya Muslims could apply for citizenship if they can show their forebears lived in the country. But the latest deal – like the one in 1992 – does not guarantee citizenship.
Burmese government officials have said the 1992-1993 repatriation deal, which followed a previous spasm of violence, would accept those who could present identity documents issued to the Rohingya by governments in the past.
Buddhist-majority Burma has for years denied Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare and education. They are considered illegal immigrants from majority-Muslim Bangladesh.
Additional reporting from Reuters.