YANGON • Myanmar's government said it has repatriated the first family of Rohingya refugees, among the 700,000 who fled a brutal crackdown, but the move was slammed by rights groups as a publicity stunt which ignored warnings over the security of returnees.
The stateless Muslim minority has been massing in squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh since the Myanmar army launched a ruthless campaign against the community in northern Rakhine state in August last year.
The United Nations says the operation amounts to ethnic cleansing, but Myanmar has denied the charge, saying its troops targeted Rohingya militants.
A Myanmar government statement posted late on Saturday said one family of refugees became the first to be processed in newly built reception centres earlier in the day.
"The five members of a family... came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state," said the statement posted on the official Facebook page of the Information Committee.
Several thousand Rohingya have been living on a patch of "no man's land" since last August, crammed into a cluster of tents beyond a barbed wire fence that roughly demarcates the border zone between the two countries.
A Rohingya community leader in the camp confirmed the family's return.
According to the Myanmar statement, immigration authorities provided the family with National Verification Cards, a form of identification that falls short of citizenship and has been rejected by Rohingya leaders who want full rights.
Photos posted alongside the statement showed a man, two women, a teenage girl and a boy receiving the ID cards and getting health checks.
It said the family had been sent to stay temporarily with relatives in Maungdaw town after completing the repatriation process. The post did not mention plans for further returnees expected in the near future.
The move comes despite warnings from the UN and rights groups that a mass repatriation of Rohingya people would be premature.
The UN maintains that much work needs to be done before repatriation can be safe and dignified, including "critical issues of freedom of movement, social cohesion, livelihoods and access to services".
Mr Andrea Giorgetta from the International Federation for Human Rights blasted the repatriation announcement as "a public relations exercise in an attempt to deflect attention from the need for accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine state".
The Rohingya are reviled by many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are branded as illegal "Bengali" immigrants from Bangladesh, despite their long roots in Rakhine state.