Human rights groups have denounced as a publicity stunt a move by Myanmar’s government announcing to have repatriated the first group of Rohingya refugees from among nearly 700,000 who fled a military crackdown to neighboring Bangladesh last year.
A statement posted on the official Facebook page of the Information Committee of Myanmar’s government said that one family of the refugees was the first to be processed in newly-built reception centers earlier in the day.
“The five members of a family… came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state this morning,” the statement read.
Photos posted by the government showed one man, two women, a young girl and a boy receiving ID cards and getting health checks.
Immigration authorities provided the group with National Verification Cards, a form of ID that falls short of citizenship and has been rejected by many Rohingya leaders who want full rights before they return.
Rights groups have criticized 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.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, said the Rohingya family had been living in a camp erected on a patch of “no man’s land” between the two countries. “They were not under our jurisdiction, therefore, we cannot confirm whether there would be more people waiting to go back (to Myanmar).”
Andrea Giorgetta from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) also said the repatriation announcement is “a public relations exercise in an attempt to deflect attention from the need for accountability for crimes committed in Rakhine State.”
“Before proceeding with the repatriation of Rohingya, the Myanmar government must recognise and guarantee all their fundamental human rights,” he added.
The UN maintains that much work needs to be done before the repatriation can be safe and dignified.
On Friday, the UN’s refugee agency said it had finalized a repatriation framework with Bangladesh but was still negotiating an agreement with Myanmar. “Conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for returns to be safe, dignified, and sustainable.”
Many Rohingya Muslim refugees express fear of returning to a country where they saw their relatives murdered by soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes who drove them from their homes with bullets and arson.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement late last year to repatriate some 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have crossed the border since August 25, 2017, to escape a brutal crackdown by the military. The repatriation was delayed due to a lack of preparation as well as protests staged by Rohingya refugees against the plan to send them back to Myanmar while conditions were not safe for their return.
Myanmar’s government troops have been committing killings, making arbitrary arrests, and carrying out arson attacks in Muslim villages in Rakhine over the last year and a half.
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations but are denied citizenship and are branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which likewise denies them citizenship.