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Myanmar Says It's Struck A Deal For Rohingya Refugees To Return, But Campaigners Say That's Not Enough

(Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

By Hazel Shearing
November 23, 2017

Human rights groups say the deal is a way for the country's government to "buy time" amid mounting accusations of ethnic cleansing.

Human rights campaigners say they are skeptical about a deal announced by Myanmar's government which will allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh this summer to return.

Around 620,000 Rohingya have crossed the border since Aug. 25, according to UN estimates, ejected from their homes in Rakhine State as part of what many rights groups, NGOs, and governments have said is a violent and orchestrated military campaign against them.

On Thursday morning Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar’s ministry of labor, immigration and population, announced that under the deal Myanmar, also known as Burma, will repatriate refugees who have filled out their personal details on forms.

“We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us,” he said.

Nearly half of the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh are living in squalid conditions in the Kutupalong Extension camp. The site was set up in the wake of the crisis, and is on its way to becoming the largest refugee camp in the world.

Aid groups and campaigners told BuzzFeed News that the new deal is unlikely to improve the situation of those who have fled, and does not address the persecution they would face upon their return.

Under the deal, refugees will be required to record the names of their family, their date of birth and their previous addresses before Myanmar will verify their identities and allow them back into the country.
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, described the deal as a way of "buying time", since sluggish bureaucracy in both countries means that it could take years to cross-check refugees' identities.

"When people are fleeing their homes under attack they're not grabbing their ID cards, if they have them," he told BuzzFeed News.

"The main problem is not how long it takes to return, or the conditions they have to meet to return. The problem is that it's not safe to return," he continued.

"The problem is that it's not safe to return."

"They will be returning to a country which does not accept they belong. They will have no human rights, they will live in prison camps, and at any moment the military can attack them again and carry out the same human rights violations which forced them to flee in the first place."

Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize-winning de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to condemn the actions of the military, which claims the crackdown was part of anti-terrorist operations after a Rohingya militant group attacked border posts in August.

Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist who documented a number of alleged atrocities including the burning of entire villages by the military, told BuzzFeed News there is "no guarantee" that those who returned would be given basic rights like education, healthcare and freedom of movement.

"Bangladesh should not send back any refugees to Myanmar unless their citizenship and their basic rights are guaranteed," he said.

"Now it looks like they will be sent back to concentration camps," he added, referring to large camps in Rakhine State where persecuted Rohingya have been housed for decades. "They must be allowed to go back to their original villages and get back their own land."

"It's public relations exercise for the government of Burma and the international community. It's not about a genuine return process."

Farmaner said the international community must impose sanctions on Myanmar's military before the persecution of the Rohingya can end.

"[The deal] is a public relations exercise for the government of Burma and the international community. It's not about a genuine return process," he said.

"Burma is going to get praise to agreeing to this return process and no-one is talking about the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi's government is still repressing the Rohingya."

This week the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described Myanmar's policy as "ethnic cleansing", despite avoiding the phrase during a visit to the country this month.

“No provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued," he said. “The United States will also pursue accountability through U.S. law, including possible targeted sanctions.”

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, however, told parliament on Tuesday that while the Foreign Office has received "troubling evidence" with regards to genocide, the crisis would only warrant use of the phrase "ethnic cleansing" if the Rohingya remained outside of Myanmar.

“Unless the refugees are allowed to return, then this crisis, this purge will indeed satisfy the definition of ethnic cleansing," he said.

Farmaner underscored that the international community needs to take firm action to guarantee that those Rohingya who are repatriated can return to a better life.

"Unless we start to see really strong sanctions against the military, so that they face real pressure, we're going to see a repeat of this crisis all over again."

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