Health Care

First Rohingya refugees repatriated to Myanmar despite United Nations safety fears

First Rohingya refugees repatriated to Myanmar despite United Nations safety fears

Myanmar's government said it repatriated on Saturday the first family of Rohingya out of some 700,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh to escape a brutal military campaign, despite United Nations warnings that a safe return is not yet possible.

Rights groups have criticised the announcement as a publicity stunt and Bangladesh has distanced itself, saying the repatriation was not part of the return process the two countries have been trying to start.

An estimated 647,000 Rohingya - about half of Burma's entire population of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic minority group - have left their homes in northern Rakhine state since violence erupted in August and crossed into Bangladesh, settling in vast and squalid refugee camps.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in November to repatriate three-quarters of a million Rohingya by the end of the year but the deal has been delayed indefinitely, with each side blaming the other for a lack of preparation.

The agency also noted that in the absence of a UNHCR-Myanmar-Bangladesh agreement, it has continued to engage with both Governments in negotiations on two separate memoranda of understanding (MOUs), meant to ensure that any future returns are conducted in line with the worldwide standards.

In a statement on Saturday, the Myanmar government claimed: "Five members of a Muslim family came to the Taungpyoletwea reception centre in Rakhine state in the morning".

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Several thousand Rohingya have been living in the zone since August, crammed into a cluster of tents beyond a barbed-wire fence that roughly demarcates the border zone between the two countries.

Win Myat Aye had met with Rohingya leaders at the giant Kutupalong camp near Cox's Bazar, where a group of refugees tried to stage a protest during his visit. The repatriation process was to begin on January 23.

It said the family was staying temporarily with relatives in Maungdaw town, the administrative centre close to the border.

A Facebook post on the official page of Myanmar's Information Committee appears to show the family getting health checks and receiving packages of rice, mosquito netting, and blankets.

The Rohingya Blogger site said that when the plan did not work, the family returned to Myanmar, where they were portrayed as "returnees".

In a statement late on Saturday, Myanmar said it had repatriated the first Rohingya family from refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.

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They have been systematically stripped of their citizenship in recent decades and forced to live in apartheid-like conditions with severely restricted access to health care, education, and other basic services.

Last week, the most senior United Nations official to visit Myanmar this year, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs Ursula Mueller, said the conditions in Myanmar were not conducive to the return of the refugees.

Many refugees say they fear a repeat of the persecution that forced them off their lands if they go back under the repatriation deal, and of being placed in temporary transit camps for an unknown period of time as they await new housing.

Muazzem Ali said at the core of the problem is the refusal of Myanmar authorities to recognize them as their citizens, although they have been living there for centuries, as their citizens.

Many of their original communities were burned to the ground in the violence that Doctors Without Borders says claimed at least 6,700 Rohingya lives in the first month alone.

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