The Foreign Ministry of Bangladesh announced on Thursday that a memorandum of understanding had been signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the return of Rohingya Muslim refugees after more than 600,000 fled to Bangladesh to escape what the US and UN have described as “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
A statement from the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry announced the deal stipulated the return of refugees would start within two months, the formation of a joint working group to begin within three weeks and an arrangement for specific bilateral repatriation to “be concluded in a speedy manner”.
The deal, which referred to the Rohingya as ‘Myanmar nationals’ was confirmed during a meeting between Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw. Following weeks of negotiations, Suu Kyi declared the deal was agreed via two-way talks that centred on “friendly and good neighbourly relations”.
As well as issuing a statement confirming their voluntary return, a requirement of the deal will further demand refugees to fill in forms with their previous address, birth dates and names of family members.
In accordance with the 1992-1993 repatriation pact between the two nations, those with identity papers issued by past governments will also be permitted to return.
“We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us,” Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar’s ministry of labor, immigration and population, told Reuters after the deal was announced.
But rights groups have apprehensions about the process, especially in relation to the forcible return of the Rohingya. Many also question where the persecuted minority will be relocated after large swathes of Rohingya villages were razed to the ground.
“It is completely premature to be talking about returns when hundreds of Rohingya continue to flee persecution and arrive in Bangladesh on an almost daily basis,” an Amnesty International spokesperson told the BBC.
“We’re also concerned that the UN… have been completely sidelined from this process. This does not bode well for ensuring a really robust voluntary repatriation agreement that meets international standards.”
Rohingya refugee Abdur Rahim shares similar fears. He told AFP that despite overcrowded conditions in the camps of Bangladesh, refugees will not return to Myanmar until they are granted full citizenship – a demand that is unlikely to be met given the Rohingya ethnicity is not listed as one of the 135 officially recognised “national races” adopted in the late 1980s.
“We won’t go back to Myanmar unless all Rohingya are granted citizenship with full rights like any other Myanmar nationals,” said Rahim. “We won’t return to any refugee camps in Rakhine.”
The deal came just one day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed the “horrendous atrocities” issued by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya constituted ethnic cleansing. Tillerson’s statement followed months of calls from the international community to resolve the crisis, including a recently issued United Nations Security Council presidential statement condemning the violence.