Myanmar Is Building a Camp for 30,000 Rohingya but 'Refugees Don't Feel Safe to Return'

The Myanmar government has said it is building a camp to temporarily house 30,000 returning Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh.

More than 655,000 people have fled Rakhine state following a military campaign, started last August, which the United Nations said may amount to ethnic cleansing. Myanmar, also known as Burma, denied the allegations.

Myanmar and Bangadesh, which last November reached a repatriation agreement, met on Monday (January 15) to discuss details of the deal. Officials told Reuters that the camp in Hla Po Khaung will be used as a "transition place", before Rohingya refugees are repatriated to their "place of origin" or the nearest settlement to their place of origin.

The Rohingya are stateless people regarded as unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh. They live in segregated conditions in Rakhine and routinely flee Myanmar due to alleged persecution.

Myanmar officials explained that as per a 1992-1993 repatriation deal, which followed another crisis, only those refugees able to produce identification documents will be accepted back. They explained that people will be granted citizenship if they are able to demonstrate their ancestors lived in Myanmar.

Rights groups and the U.N have expressed skepticism over the deal, calling for greater clarity.

Some have pointed out Rohingyas will unlikely return voluntarily, unless Myanmar guarantees them safety and full recognition of their rights as Burmese citizens.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), believes that a safe and voluntarily return can only happen if Myanmar guarantees prosecution of those behind alleged atrocities and full repatriation to people whose houses and crops were destroyed during the military campaign.

"When I met with the Rohingyas in the camps, they said they would like to go back home, but only when they feel safe, when they are recognized as citizens. None of that is happening now," she told Newsweek.

"They [refugees] are being put in camps, there has been no ackowledgment from the Myanmar government that so many people were targeted so brutally and that there will be accountability. There is no environment for a safe return," she continued.

"What needs to happen for the Myanmar government is to acknowledge that these people are Burmese nationals who became refugees because of terrible atrocities. We have to hear from the Myanmar authorities that when these people go back, they will be treated in a rights respecting manner."

Bangladesh is bound by international laws to accept refugees, who cannot be returned to a country where their safety could be a risk. The country said on Monday it was not clear when the first refugees could be repatriated to Myanmar, as both nations need to jointly verify the identities of returnees.

"The Bangladeshi authorities acknowledged that, unless the situation in Burma improves and people feel they can safely return home with dignity, they will come back," Ganguly said. "Even if the numbers have dropped, refugees continue to arrive."

Rohingya refugees
Rohingya refugees wait for food supply distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018. Myanmar and Bangadesh, which last November reached a repatriation agreement, met in January to discuss details of the deal. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Myanmar crisis explained

The recent exodus of Rohingya refugees was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 11 people in Rakhine. The military retaliated with what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out militants. However, the U.N. described it as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

Myanmar's army has been accused of committing human rights abuses, including mass rapes and extrajudicial executions, against the Rohingya.

The army has strongly denied accusations of excessive force against the Rohingya, but U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said violence against Rohingya may amount to genocide.

Myanmar's de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Suu Kyi's power over the military is limited, however she has been criticized for failing to address the situation and publicly condemn the massacres. The leader refuses to use the word "Rohingya" in her public addresses, arguing it is too contentious for an already affected population.

In December, Myanmar indefinitely barred access to the U.N. independent investigator on human rights in the country.

U.N. special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said she had been scheduled to travel to Myanmar in January. However, Myanmar told her that it would not cooperate with her or grant her access to the country for the rest of her tenure.