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UN, Dhaka dispute Burma’s Rohingya repatriation claim

Members of the first Rohingya family purportedly to be repatriated from Bangladesh are pictured during processing by Burmese officials. (Photo: Facebook / Information Committee)

The Bangladeshi government and the United Nations refugee agency on Sunday disputed Burma’s claim it had repatriated five members of a Rohingya family, saying neither the government of Bangladesh nor the aid agency had any involvement in any such repatriation.

Abul Kalam, the Bangladeshi government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, said a family of five who were in the Konarpara area in no man’s land between the two countries, had reentered Burmese territory and had been taken to the reception centre set up by Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar.

“This is in no way a repatriation, rather it is propaganda,” he told Reuters.

Separately, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement on Sunday it had no direct knowledge of this case and was not consulted or involved in this reported return.

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Burmese government said, “This is not propaganda,” the family decided to come back of their own volition.

“We are taking care of them,” he said.

Reuters was not able to reach the family in question or verify the exact location that they had returned from.

In a statement late on Saturday, Burma said it had repatriated the first Rohingya family from refugees who have fled to Bangladesh. It said a family of five, including an individual named Aftar Ar Lwan, had returned to one of its reception centres in Rakhine State.

Burma and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete a voluntary repatriation of the refugees in two years. Burma set up two reception centres and what it says is a temporary camp near the border in Rakhine to receive the first arrivals.

According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine to escape a military crackdown since August, amid reports of murder, rape and arson by Burma troops and Buddhist vigilantes which the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”.

Burma has denied nearly all allegations, saying it waged a legitimate counter-insurgency operation. The army has said its crackdown was provoked by the attacks of Rohingya militants on more than two dozen police posts and an army base last August.

Burma’s claim of the first repatriation comes just days after the UNHCR said conditions in Burma were not conducive for a return of refugees.

In its statement on Sunday, the UNHCR called on Burma to ensure any returns are voluntary, safe and dignified. The agency said any refugees returning ought to be sustainably reintegrated into the community.

Burma in its statement on Saturday said the family of five were scrutinized by immigration and health officials and the social welfare, relief and resettlement ministry provided them with “materials such as rice, mosquito netting, blankets … and kitchen utensils.”

It added that the family members who “are in line with the rules” were issued the National Verification Cards (NVCs) upon entering Burma.

NVCs are part of the government’s ongoing effort to register Rohingya that falls short of offering them citizenship. The card has been widely rejected by Rohingya community leaders, who say they treat life-long residents like new immigrants.