Bangladesh, Myanmar agree on 'working group' for Rohingya refugees repatriation: Minister

Rohingya Muslim refugees who had just arrived wait for a place to stay at Bangladesh's Balukhali refugee camp on Oct 2, 2017.
Rohingya Muslim refugees who had just arrived wait for a place to stay at Bangladesh's Balukhali refugee camp on Oct 2, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (REUTERS, AFP) - Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Monday to set up a “joint working group” on the repatriation of  Rohingya Muslim refugee who have fled to Bangladesh, Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali told reporters on Monday (Oct 2) after talks with a Myanmar official.

“We are looking forward to a peaceful solution to the crisis,” Ali said after his talks with Myanmar government official Kyaw Tint Swe.

Ali said the representative of de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi had agreed to set up a working group to coordinate the repatriation. He gave no details. 

“The talks were held in a friendly atmosphere and Myanmar has made a proposal to take back the Rohingya refugees,” the minister told reporters after meeting Kyaw Tint Swe in Dhaka. “The two sides have agreed to a proposal to set up a joint working group to coordinate the repatriation process.”

Suu Kyi, who has been severely criticised for her failure to curb the military crackdown on the Rohingya, said in a speech last month that Myanmar would take back “verified” refugees.  This would be done according to the criteria set between the two countries in 1993, when tens of thousands of Rohingya were repatriated, she said. 

The Bangladesh minister gave no timeframe for repatriation and did not say whether Myanmar would also take back the 300,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during earlier violence.  He said the refugees would be verified by the joint working group, with the United Nations not involved. 

“Bangladesh has proposed a bilateral agreement (with Myanmar) to help implement the repatriation,” he said.  There was no immediate comment from Suu Kyi’s representative, who arrived in Bangladesh early Monday and is expected to leave later in the day. 

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, do not qualify for Myanmar citizenship even though many have lived there for generations.  The army insists they are interlopers from across the border in Bangladesh. 

With the latest influx, there are now more than 800,000 refugees living near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar.  The desperate conditions in the overcrowded camps have sparked concerns that epidemics, including cholera, could spread. 

It remains unclear where the Rohingya would go if they were returned to Myanmar – many of their villages have been burned down in a military operation which the United Nations has called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”. 

In a speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed creating UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar to protect them.  Hasina accused Myanmar authorities of laying landmines on the border to prevent the Rohingya from returning and said the UN must take immediate measures to find a solution to the crisis.