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US official says Rohingya repatriation not yet possible

Rakhine return too 'dangerous' without changed conditions

<p>A Rohingya child returns with firewood to a refugee camp in Bangladesh (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)</p>

A Rohingya child returns with firewood to a refugee camp in Bangladesh (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

  • ucanews.com reporter, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • February 4, 2014
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Myanmar is not yet ready to repatriate thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Rakhine state to became refugees in neighboring Bangladesh, a top US official said Monday.

Repatriation of the Rohingyas without sufficiently changed conditions for them in Rakhine would mean pushing them into “a very dangerous situation”, said Judith Cefkin, a US senior adviser on Myanmar said during a press briefing at the US embassy in Dhaka.

“It’s a complex issue and it’s going to take time. The Myanmar government is tackling many complex issues right now, but time has not come yet for that,” she said.

Cefkin spoke to the press on Monday, hours before leaving for Myanmar.

While in Dhaka, she met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Foreign Affairs advisor Gowher Rizvi and State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam.

“We discussed how the US and Bangladesh can together support Myanmar’s reforms and its development process,” she said.

Cefkin’s visit comes amid media speculation that a Bangladeshi strategic plan on the Rohingyas is currently being reviewed by several government ministries.

The plan includes conducting a head-count survey of Rohingya refugees, forming a task force to stop Rohingyas from entering the country illegally, and installing an embankment as a barrier along a 50-km stretch of the Naf River that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Once in effect, the policy will not only make life more difficult for undocumented Rohingyas in Bangladesh, but also a special law will make it a punishable offense to provide shelter and support to "illegal Rohingyas".

In the past four decades, thousands of Rohingyas have fled a series of bloody crackdowns and sectarian violence in Rakhine and entered neighboring Bangladesh. Most were eventually repatriated, but 30,000 have refused to leave, for fear of further persecution.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees granted official refugee status to these Rohingyas, which allowed them to stay in two camps in Cox’s Bazar district, where they depend on the government and NGO aid for survival.

The UNHCR estimates there are about 300,000 undocumented Rohingyas residing outside the official camps; Bangladesh authorities put the number at around 500,000.

Relatively friendly to Rohingyas in the past, Bangladesh has taken a tougher stance in the last two years, largely due to recent local media reports that undocumented Rohingyas were allegedly involved in unlawful activities including damaging the environment by forest encroachment and involvement with militant groups and drug smuggling.

Bangladesh Border Guards have turned away boatloads of Rohingyas since 2011. The same year, the government also closed down three international aid agencies that operated among undocumented Rohingyas, in order to discourage Rohingyas from leaving their homes for better prospects in Bangladesh.

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