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Myanmar transit camp for returning Rohingya refugees in Rakhine state remains empty amid fears of violence

Maungdaw: The transit camp in Myanmar's Rakhine state stands ready to welcome 150 Rohingya refugees back from Bangladesh every day.

But on most days it lies completely empty, as members of the stateless minority dread returning to a place they were violently driven from by the military, and Myanmar makes little effort to assure them that things will be different this time.

"We have been ready to receive them since January, when we opened," said Win Khaing, immigration director at Nga Khu Ra, standing in the desolate camp on Friday as part of a two-day government-chaperoned trip to the area.

Rohingya refugee women and children gather at a refugee camp. Reuters

Rohingya refugee women and children gather at a refugee camp. Reuters

The result is an impasse, as Myanmar immigration officials wait in empty offices shuffling papers and arranging biometric equipment but with little to no work to do except to greet visiting delegations and journalists.

Fewer than 200 Rohingya Muslims have been resettled in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state from the 700,000 who fled a violent army crackdown in August 2017.

Rohingya women say they were raped by security forces, while witnesses described summary executions and a merciless campaign of violence that the United Nations (UN) has said amounts to ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar says it only targeted militants, although the military has admitted one instance of executing captured suspects.

Even the limited number of Rohingya who have returned, have all done so under murky circumstances.

In April this year, the government trumpeted the arrival of a Rohingya family of five, but it was later slammed as a PR stunt as it emerged that they had come from a buffer area between the two countries that is technically part of Myanmar.

Local authorities, nevertheless, created a billboard with several large photos of the family near the border, heralding the "photo records of steps of repatriation".

In recent months, Myanmar says dozens have been repatriated after crossing over from Bangladesh illegally.

It says others who tried to flee to Bangladesh by boat but accidentally washed up back in Myanmar have also been sent to live with relatives after being processed at the transit camp.
Bangladesh does not recognise these as legitimate returnees.

"The repatriation process has not begun," Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said.

Nine Rohingya purportedly released from prison in May after crossing back over illegally were brought by Myanmar officials to meet journalists on Friday.

But cracks quickly emerged in the story, with some saying they had never even been to Bangladesh and were "repatriated" from prison in Myanmar.

"We were arrested in November last year (in Myanmar) and sentenced to four years imprisonment each under the immigration act," said Yar Sein (35), a farmer and father of four.

"We were arrested from school and accused of coming from Bangladesh. We haven't been to Bangladesh." The prolonged delays in repatriation have also strained relations with Bangladesh, which plans to send a protest note after a 10-year-old Rohingya boy in the buffer zone was struck by a bullet from the Myanmar side on Thursday.

Myanmar says it fired at people attempting to damage the border fence.

As the two countries blame each other for the delay, Myanmar has embarked on what it says is a massive development project in northern Rakhine, bulldozing Rohingya towns and remaking the entire landscape in the name of reconstruction.

The UN has said conditions in Rakhine are not ripe for a safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation, but signed an agreement with Myanmar to assess conditions on the ground to help refugees make an informed decision.


Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 13:50 PM

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