DHAKA: Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Tuesday to begin by November the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar army crackdown, though doubts about a speedy return are likely to persist.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed from the west of mostly Buddhist Myanmar into Bangladesh from August last year after Rohingya insurgent attacks on the Myanmar security forces triggered a sweeping military response.
"We are looking forward to start the repatriation by mid-November," Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque told reporters in Dhaka after a meeting with Myanmar delegation led by senior foreign ministry official Myint Thu.
Myint Thu hailed what he called a "very concrete result on the commencement of the repatriation".
"We have put in place a number of measures to make sure that the returnees will have a secure environment for their return," he told reporters.
But rights groups and Rohingya community leaders say conditions back in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine State, where most of the refugees are from, are not ready for a repatriation.
Leaders of the largely stateless Rohingya community have said they will not return without various demands being met, including the rights to Myanmar citizenship.
"We have some demands but the government of Myanmar didn't do anything to meet them. How can we go back?" Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya leader now living in southeast Bangladesh, told Reuters.
"What about our citizenships, our rights and our demand to go back to our land ... our own houses?"
The Myanmar delegation will visit the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh's foreign minister said Myanmar had cleared the list of 8,000 Rohingya people sent by Dhaka for verification after last year’s deal.
The two countries had reached a deal in November last year to begin repatriation within two months, but it has not started.
Rohingya are still crossing the border into Bangladesh, with nearly 14,000 arriving this year, according to U.N. officials.
U.N. investigators issued a report in August accusing Myanmar’s military of acting with "genocidal intent" and calling for the country’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.
Myanmar has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.
Min Aung Hlaing suggested in September that the Rohingya belonged in Bangladesh and said they must "accept scrutiny" under a 1982 Citizenship Law.
The law limits citizenship for those, like the Rohingya, who are not members of officially decreed ethnic groups.
Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Reuters in an interview last month that under no circumstance would the refugees be allowed to remain permanently.
Hasina, who is facing a general election at the end of the year, also accused Myanmar of finding new excuses to delay the return.
Myanmar, however, has blamed Bangladesh for the delay and says it is ready to take back the refugees and has built transit centres to house them initially on their return.
Given the delays, Bangladesh has been preparing new homes on a remote island called Bhasan Char, which rights groups have said could be subject to flooding.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Robert Birsel & Simon Cameron-Moore)