Rohingya returnees won't be kept in camps 'forever', says Myanmar official

The Myanmar government built transit camps in Hla Pho Khaung for minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, close to Bangladesh border.
The Myanmar government built transit camps in Hla Pho Khaung for minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, close to Bangladesh border.PHOTO: AFP

MAUNGDAW, Myanmar (AFP) - A Myanmar official in Rakhine state said on Saturday (March 17) that Rohingya refugees who return will not be held in newly-built camps "forever," as concerns mounted over a vexed repatriation process and efforts to reshape communities in the crisis-hit state.

Ye Htut, the administrator of Maungdaw district, was speaking to reporters on a government-chaperoned trip to northern Rakhine, the site of a military crackdown last August that has emptied the region of some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims.

Myanmar has been trumpeting its readiness to take back refugees, who are massed across the border in Bangladesh, and has built reception centres and transit camps for returnees.

But not a single Rohingya has crossed the border, with the United Nations sounding the alarm that Myanmar must do far more to ensure the safety of a minority that was targeted in an army-led campaign the UN branded "ethnic cleansing".

Rights groups have also raised concerns about how Buddhist-majority Myanmar is reconstructing Rakhine in the Rohingyas' absence, with authorities bulldozing over their burned villages and building new settlements and security posts.

An AFP reporter witnessed a flurry of construction in the region on Saturday, with work crews erecting prefabricated houses along a road leading to Maungdaw town.

Speaking to reporters from his office, Ye Htut insisted that any Rohingya returnees would eventually be resettled close to their original villages after staying in transit camps.

"I can't ask them to live (at the camps) forever...We don't have any vision or intention to keep them long," he said.

The government "will return them back to their native villages or close by," he added.

But a visit to one of the resettlement sites intended for Rohingya, whom a government official referred to only as Muslims, showed slow progress.

Only three squat houses with concrete and brick foundations had been built in a field covered in churned up dirt and tread marks from heavy machinery.

CHARRED RUINS

The site, which lies two hours north of Maungdaw town by car, was chosen for its proximity to the original village, which lay in charred ruins within view.

Myint Khaing, Maungdaw township administrator, said about 100 families were supposed to live in the new site and that it would be completed in two months.

Asked why its construction was not as far along as a settlement 30 minutes away intended for an internally displaced ethnic minority called the Mro, he suggested priority was given to communities that had not fled to Bangladesh. "They didn't run away," he said.

Myanmar has vehemently denied accusations that is trying to erase the Rohingya's ties to Rakhine, insisting the army crackdown was a targeted assault on Muslim militants.

But the UN and rights groups have pointed to the country's long history of marginalising and persecuting the Muslim minority, who are denied citizenship and loathed by the Buddhist majority.

More than 100,000 are still languishing in a squalid refugee camp in southern Rakhine state after being displaced by communal violence in 2012.

On Friday, the head of the UN's refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, said the conditions for the Rohingyas' safe return were not yet in place and that discussions with Myanmar on repatriation "have been pretty basic, not very frequent (and) not very advanced".

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a deal that was supposed to see repatriation begin in January.

But Myanmar has so far agreed to accept only 374 of 8,000 refugees whose names have been put forward by Dhaka for the initial batch of returnees.