ONLY 374 Rohingya Muslim refugees have been verified by Burma (Myanmar) for possible repatriation from Bangladesh, officials said on Wednesday, starting a repatriation process that has been criticised by rights groups as being premature.
Burmese officials blamed their neighbour for not providing the correct information and paperwork authorities have deemed essential under the strict requirements of repatriation.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after militant attacks on Aug 25 sparked a crackdown led by security forces in the western Rakhine state that the United Nations and United States have said constituted ethnic cleansing.
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The administration of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to counter the allegations by forging ahead with development in Rakhine and by readying reception centres and a camp for returnees.
Part of the repatriation deal includes Rohingya being held in these holding centres, which Rohingya activists have called “concentration camps“.
The two countries reached a deal in November to begin repatriation within two months, but repatriation has not begun, with stateless Rohingya, who face restrictions on their movements in Burma, still crossing the border.
Myint Thu, permanent secretary at Myanmar‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said officials had checked documents handed over by Bangladesh in February relating to 8,032 refugees.
“Out of 8,032, we verified 374. These 374 will be the first batch of the repatriation,” Myint Thu said at a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw.
“They can come back when it’s convenient for them.”
It was unclear whether the 374 people had agreed to return to Burma.
Burma was unable to confirm whether the rest of the refugees had previously lived in the country, he said, because some documents did not include fingerprints and individual photographs.
The documents were “not in line with our agreement”, police Brigadier-General Win Tun said at the same news conference.
Burma had found three “terrorists” among the people Bangladesh was proposing for repatriation, Win Tun added.
Bangladesh officials have expressed doubts about Burma‘s willingness to take back Rohingya refugees.
Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner, said he could not comment in detail because he had not yet received Burma‘s response. But he questioned how more than 300 people could have been verified if the documents were in the wrong format.
Refugees must have identity documents issued by the government, along with proof of their residency in Burma. Such criteria are difficult to meet for most Rohingya who do not have official documents as they are considered illegal immigrants and remain stateless, despite residing in Burma for generations.
Additional reporting by Reuters.