Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate Rohingya displaced by an army crackdown "within two years", Dhaka said on Tuesday, outlining the first clear timeline for a return of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The agreement says the process will be "completed preferably within two years from the commencement of repatriation", according to a statement from the Bangladeshi government following talks in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw.
The deal applies to Rohingya who fled Myanmar in two major outbreaks of violence since October 2016, when militants from the stateless Muslim minority first attacked border-guard posts in northern Rakhine state.
It does not cover Rohingya refugees who were living in Bangladesh prior to that date who the UN estimates the number at 200,000.
"During this two-day meeting, we agreed on the form that refugees will have to fill to be able to come back to Myanmar," Mohammad Sufiur Rahman, Bangladesh ambassador in Myanmar told AFP.
"We should be able to start the process in the coming days," he said, but added Myanmar's stated deadline of next week for starting Rohingya repatriation was "not possible".
The agreement follows a pact between the countries in November paving the way for repatriations from 23 January, a deadline that is likely to slip given the logistical challenges of the cross-border operation.
Myanmar has faced intense diplomatic pressure to allow the safe return of Rohingya refugees driven out by its army.
But many Rohingya in crowded camps in Bangladesh say they are reluctant to return to Rakhine state having fled atrocities including murder, rape and arson attacks on their homes.
Despite that, Myanmar authorities have pressed ahead with the construction of a "temporary camp" in Rakhine's Maungdaw district.
Eventually the site "will accommodate about 30,000 people in its 625 buildings" before they can be resettled permanently, Myanmar's state media reported this week. But only a fraction of the buildings have been finished.
Officials from Myanmar and Bangladesh met on Monday to discuss how to implement another deal, signed on 23 November, on the return of more than 650,000 Rohingya who escaped an army crackdown since late August.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has for years denied Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to many basic services such as healthcare and education. They are considered illegal immigrants from mainly Muslim Bangladesh.
The authorities have said returnees could apply for citizenship if they can show their forebears have lived in Myanmar. But the latest deal – like the one in 1992 – does not guarantee citizenship and it is unclear how many would qualify.
Monday's meeting in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw was the first for a joint working group set up to hammer out the details of the November repatriation agreement. The group is made up of civil servants from both countries.
Last month, Bangladeshi officials said they had sent a list of 100,000 names to Myanmar for the first round of repatriation. Myanmar is yet to publicly endorse the list or even confirm it has received the names.
Bangladesh officials had said they would begin the process this month by sharing with Myanmar authorities a list of 100,000 Rohingya, picked at random from among registered refugees.
A Myanmar agency set up to oversee repatriation said in a statement recently that two temporary "repatriation and assessment camps" and one other site to accommodate returnees had been set up.
With inputs from AFP and Reuters
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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 12:56:42 IST