Burma prepares camps but no sign of Rohingya refugees returning from Bangladesh

Burma prepares camps but no sign of Rohingya refugees returning from Bangladesh
Abdul Gaffar, 50, (center) who is third time refugee, poses for a photograph with his wife (right) and daughter in his make shift shelter at BaluKhali refugee camp 50 kilometers (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Pic: AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Workers on the Burma side of the border with Bangladesh were laying bricks, digging ditches and drilling holes in building frames today in preparation for the repatriation of some of the Rohingya Muslims who have poured into Bangladesh in what has become the world’s worst refugee crisis.

There was no sign, however, of any of the nearly 700,000 Rohingya chased away by Burmese security forces.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, invited journalists to the border to show it is ready for a gradual repatriation. But Bangladesh said it needs more time to prepare for the transfer.

The refugees, meanwhile, are deeply sceptical, if not outright terrified, about returning to a place where they say their homes were burned, their wives, sisters and mothers raped, and their friends, relatives and neighbours slaughtered.

This means that, despite the construction efforts on Burma’s side of the border, no repatriation seems likely any time soon.

Burmese officials and security forces stood near the barbed wire fence at the transition camp, but Rohingya in Bangladesh said they have seen no major preparation for refugees to return safely to their destroyed homes in Rakhine state in western Burma.

"Myanmar is just getting ready by itself, but we are not going unless there are promises made for us," Ko Ko Lin, a member of Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, said.

The two countries have agreed to a two-year repatriation process that was set to begin yesterday. But officials in Bangladesh said on Monday that a number of issues remained unresolved, in particular fears that refugees were being forced to return.

After documents and lists of people need to be exchanged between the two governments, Burma will then check the returnees to see if they are on the lists, said Ko Ko Thaw, an immigration officer at the reception camp in the northern part of Rakhine.

Only refugees with identity documents, which most Rohingya lack, will be allowed back into Burma.

In the sprawling camps that cover the hills south of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, along the border with Burma, many Rohingya say they will only to return to their obliterated villages if there is strong outside monitoring of their safety and living conditions.

"How can we go back to Myanmar without anyone guaranteeing our security?" asked Alam, a Rohingya in the Bulakhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, who, like many Rohingya, goes only by one name.

"If we would be given homes in our villages that were burned, then we will go back."

More than 680,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape a crackdown by Burma’s military that began following attacks by a Rohingya militant group on August 25.

The United Nations and the United States have described the crackdown as "ethnic cleansing". The UN human rights chief has also suggested it may be genocide.

Many in Burma see Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, although many families have lived in Burma for generations. They have been denied citizenship, freedom of movement and other basic rights.

A total of more than one million Rohingya Muslims are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, but international aid workers, local officials and the refugees themselves say preparations for repatriation are far from complete.

The two countries have signed an agreement to begin sending people home in "safety, security and dignity", but rights groups have expressed concern about Rohingya returning to villages they left only months ago in terror.

According to the UN refugee agency and other rights groups, Rohingya are still fleeing across the border into Bangladesh, although the numbers are smaller than in previous months.

PA and Digital desk

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