Return of Rohingya refugees to be completed 'within two years'
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed yesterday to complete the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees within two years, despite international fears that they will be held in grim internment camps that may result in long-term ghettos and a "powder keg" of radicalisation.
More than 650,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have been sheltering in neighbouring Bangladesh since the Myanmarese military began a bloody crackdown in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state in August, a campaign so brutal that it has been described by the United Nations as "ethnic cleansing".
Despite reports of mass rape, murder and the torching of villages, Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Bangladesh agreed in principle late last year to return the refugees as quickly as possible, but are still thrashing out the details.
Myanmarese Resettlement Minister Win Myat Aye has claimed Myanmar would be ready to accept the first returnees on January 23 and "we are sure that this will be done on time".
Dhaka, however, has not confirmed the starting date.
State-run Myanmarese media reported that construction was progressing rapidly at the 124-acre Hla Po Khaung camp, which will host 30,000 in 625 buildings. The UN refugee agency is not involved in the process but has said it is willing to play a "constructive role" if allowed.
Myanmar's recent history of indefinite detention of the Rohingya minority had made the UN and international NGOs wary of involvement with the impending repatriation, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The Myanmar government's priority is all about keeping control of returnees pending nationality verification, and that means holding them while they sort people out - which is unlikely to be a speedy process," he said. "There's no faith among the Rohingya that they will be protected or treated fairly during that process; they fear being ghettoised in an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camp."
Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh said the plans to return refugees to temporary camps raised serious alarm bells.
"For the last five years tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined to squalid displacement camps which they are not allowed to leave," she said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)