Myanmar to begin process of taking back Rohingya refugees

Villages razed by fire near Maungdaw in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state in a picture taken yesterday. Some 502,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh since late last month.
Villages razed by fire near Maungdaw in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state in a picture taken yesterday. Some 502,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh since late last month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • Myanmar is poised to begin "verifying" how many of the half a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh it will take back, the Ministry of Information said yesterday, naming land and sea points in Rakhine state for their return.

Giving an updated figure, the United Nations said yesterday that 501,800 Rohingya Muslims have fled the northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh since Aug 25, when militant attacks sparked an army campaign that the UN says was tantamount to "ethnic cleansing", Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

The new arrivals are living in increasingly desperate conditions in overcrowded rain-battered camps, reliant on a trickle of aid. There are also fears that they could be targeted by people smugglers.

Bangladesh, which already hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya before the latest crisis, has led the global chorus calling on Myanmar to take back the Rohingya and guarantee their safety. But it is unclear how many Rohingya, who numbered around one million in Myanmar before Aug 25, will be eligible for return to a country that does not recognise them as citizens, said AFP.

Yangon's move comes as a visit by representatives of UN agencies to Rakhine was cancelled yesterday. It would have been the first such visit since the start of a massive exodus of Rohingya Muslims. BBC reported that UN aid personnel were made to leave Rakhine after the military started cracking down on Rohingya militants.

The visit "was postponed to next week because of weather conditions", said a spokesman for the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar.

The UN has been demanding access to Rakhine since its humanitarian organisations were forced to pull out when Myanmar's military launched operations against Rohingya rebels late last month. The UN has drawn up a contingency plan to feed up to 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, and warned that those who fled will not be returning home soon.

Myanmar's military on Wednesday organised a press tour in the Hindu village of Ye Baw Kyaw. Mass graves containing 45 Hindu villagers were discovered in the area earlier this week, and the military has accused Rohingya militants of carrying out the massacre.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army "categorically" denied that its members "perpetrated murder, sexual violence or forcible recruitment" in the area, AFP reported.

Yesterday's visit for the UN representatives would have come on the same day the UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on the situation in Myanmar. The council had earlier called on the Myanmar government to abide by its commitment to facilitate humanitarian aid in Rakhine, but until now, that request has not been met.

Meanwhile, Thailand faced mounting calls yesterday to stop pushing migrants back out to sea amid fears that an exodus of Rohingya Muslims could spark a new wave of boat people. Thailand was a popular transit route by boat and land until a 2015 Thai police crackdown led to ships full of migrants being abandoned at sea, Reuters reported.

At least 10 children and four women were killed yesterday when a boat carrying fleeing Rohingya capsized in seas off Bangladesh, police said. Some 120 Rohingya have drowned on their way to Bangladesh in small boats, AFP reported.

SEE FORUM: Doing nothing will worsen Rohingya crisis

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2017, with the headline 'Myanmar to begin process of taking back Rohingya refugees'. Subscribe