Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement covering the return of Rohingya Muslims who fled across their mutual border to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
Myanmar announced the agreement on Thursday, but provided no details on how many Rohingya refugees would be allowed to return home or how soon that might happen. Bangladesh said the repatriations are to begin within two months.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh since Aug. 25, when the army began "clearance operations" following an attack on police posts by a group of Rohingya insurgents.
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The office of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the agreement "on the return of displaced persons from Rakhine state" was signed Thursday by cabinet officials in Naypyitaw, Myanmar's capital.
It said the pact follows a formula set in a 1992 repatriation agreement signed by the two nations after an earlier spasm of violence. Under that agreement, Rohingya were required to present residency documents, which few have, before being allowed to return to Myanmar.
"We're continuing our bilateral talks with Myanmar so that these Myanmar nationals [Rohingya] could return to their country," Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was quoted as saying by the United News of Bangladesh news agency. "It's my call to Myanmar to start taking back soon their nationals from Bangladesh."
Rohingya at a refugee camp in Bangladesh expressed deep doubts about the agreement.
"They burned our houses, they took our land and cows — will they give us these things back?" asked Abdul Hamid from Hoyakong.
"I'm not happy at all. First, I need to know if they are going to accept us with the Rohingya identity," said Sayed Alom, also from Hoyakong.
Rohingya Muslims have faced state-supported discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar for decades.
Though members of the ethnic minority first arrived generations ago, Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practise their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
The Myanmar government has refused to accept them as a minority group, and the statement issued Thursday by Suu Kyi's office did not use the term "Rohingya."
On Wednesday, the United States declared the ongoing violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to be "ethnic cleansing," threatening penalties for military officials engaged in a brutal crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blamed Myanmar's security forces and "local vigilantes" for "intolerable suffering" imposed on the Rohingya. Although the military has accused Rohingya insurgents of triggering the crisis, Tillerson said "no provocation can justify the horrendous atrocities that have ensued."
The U.S. suspended government travel to Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state.
During a trip to Bangladesh on Thursday, Canada's International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $35 million over five years to help the country address the needs of women and girls amid the enormous influx of Rohingya refugees.
Bibeau visited women and children in Cox's Bazar, where many of the displaced Rohingya are now living in squalid camps.
She said the repatriation deal was, in principle, a step in the right direction.
"We haven't seen the terms of the agreement but we hope we would see what was recommended in the Kofi Annan report: that the rights of the refugees would be respected; that they would be going back voluntarily," Bibeau told reporters.
That report, from a commission appointed by the Myanmar government and led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, was delivered in August. It also called for promoting investment and community-directed growth to alleviate poverty in Rakhine, and for Myanmar to grant citizenship and other rights to the Rohingya.
'A system of apartheid'
The human rights group Amnesty International said in a report Tuesday that the discrimination against Rohingya has worsened considerably in the last five years, and amounts to "dehumanizing apartheid."
"There can be no safe or dignified returns of Rohingya to Myanmar while a system of apartheid remains in the country, and thousands are held there in conditions that amount to concentration camps," the group's director for refugee and migrant rights, Charmain Mohamed, said in a statement Thursday.
"Returns in the current climate are simply unthinkable."