Myanmar to take back Rohingya from latest influxes only, says official as 10,000 more refugees mass at border

Nearly 600,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh since violence erupted in Rakhine state in October 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (AFP) - Myanmar will consider taking back only those Rohingya refugees who have fled the country in the past year, a senior Bangladeshi official said Tuesday (Oct 3) as more than 10,000 Rohingya massed near a crossing point into Bangladesh, raising doubt about the practicality of the Myanmar proposal to begin repatriating them.

Over 500,000 Rohingya have streamed into Bangladesh since Aug 25, when deadly raids by Rohingya militants on police posts sparked a massive army crackdown that the UN says is tantamount to "ethnic cleansing", and numbers are again swelling.

Bangladesh is also hosting another 300,000 Rohingya who left Rakhine following previous bouts of violence, including tens of thousands who came in the 1990s.

In the first bilateral meeting with Bangladeshi officials since the latest upsurge of violence began on Aug 25, a Myanmar minister Monday said his government was ready to take back Rohingya.

No details were given at the time of the offer from Kyaw Tint Swe, made during a meeting in Dhaka with Bangladesh Foreign Minister Mahmood Ali.

But a senior Bangladesh official who attended the meeting said Myanmar would accept only those Rohingya who had fled the country in the past year. "Their mandate is that they would consider taking back those who came after last October and last August," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The official said Bangladesh would stick to its stance calling for the return of all 900,000 Rohingya refugees now living in the country's south-eastern border region.

The Myanmar officials who took part in the meeting in Dhaka did not have "the mandate" to discuss the fate of the Rohingya refugees who came earlier, he said.

Myanmar's northern state of Rakhine has been emptied of half of its Rohingya population in weeks. More are on the move as insecurity presses them to leave those villages which have so far been spared the worst of the violence that ripped through the state.

Over 10,000 "Muslims" have arrived "between Letphwekya and Kwunthpin village to emigrate to the neighbouring country", the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Tuesday.

Myanmar's government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group, instead calling them "Muslims" or "Bengalis" - code for illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The authorities have tried to reassure fleeing Rohingya that they are now safe in Rakhine, the report added, but they want to leave "of their own accord".

Violence appears to have ebbed in northern Rakhine, although independent reporting is still blocked by an army lockdown. But fear has unsettled many of the Rohingya who remain, trapped between Myanmar's army and their hostile ethnic Rakhine neighbours and cut off from aid agencies.

After a brief lull in arrivals, the Bangladesh Border Guard says 4-5,000 Rohingya are now crossing each day. "They don't want to stay (in Myanmar). They want to come here... they are being told to leave," Lieutenant-Colonel S.M Ariful Islam told AFP. Food is also running out, with villagers too fearful to tend to their crops in case they are attacked by their neighbours.

"In some villages they are scared to pass by Rakhine villages," Chris Lewa, from Rohingya advocacy group the Arakan Project, told AFP. On occasions when the Rohingya village chief decides to leave, the whole hamlet will follow, emptying a village "in just a few hours", she said.

Rakhine in ruins

Myanmar denies most Rohingya citizenship and the public in the Buddhist-majority nation does not want them back. Myanmar's army has carefully shaped perceptions of the Muslim group, branding them illegal immigrants intent on imposing Islam via the country's western gateway.

On Monday Myanmar's Minister of the Office of State Counsellor, Kyaw Tint Swe, told Bangladesh his country was ready to accept refugees subject to a verification process agreed in the early 1990s by the neighbours. Under that agreement nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya were repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar between the early 1990s and 2005, he explained.

Refugees in Bangladesh are packed into overcrowded camps along the border at increasing risk of disease. Despite Myanmar's assurances, there is widespread scepticism over how many will be able to return.

Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi said last month that Myanmar would take back "verified" refugees - but many were forced to flee without any documents.

It also remains unclear where the Rohingya would go if they did return, since many of their villages have been burnt to the ground.

The UN has urged a "safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees to their area of origin".

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