By Ruma Paul and Clare Baldwin
DHAKA (Reuters) – Representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar will meet on Tuesday to discuss the repatriation to Myanmar of more than 6,500 Rohingya Muslims trapped on a strip of unclaimed land between the two countries, Bangladeshi officials said.
“It is about taking them back to Myanmar,” Relief and Refugee Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam, told Reuters on Monday. “They are on the zero line and actually on the Myanmar side.”
However, several officials contacted in neighboring Myanmar said they were not aware of plans for a meeting, which Kalam said would take place on the “zero line” near a place called Gundum.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which will not be involved in the talks, said the agency was concerned the Rohingya may be forcibly returned to Myanmar without due consideration for their safety.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state and crossed into Bangladesh since last August, when attacks on security posts by insurgents triggered a military crackdown that the United Nations has said amounts to ethnic cleansing, with reports of arson attacks, murder and rape.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar denied the charge and says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” it blames for the attacks on the security forces.
The vast majority of Rohingya who fled are in camps at Cox’s Bazar on the southern tip of Bangladesh, but several thousand who arrived in a buffer zone along the border are now stuck.
Bangladesh security forces have been instructed not to let these Rohingya cross the border, and many of them have said they would rather stay there to avoid becoming refugees in Bangladesh.
The no-man’s land, which is about the size of 40 soccer pitches, used to be an area of paddy fields, but is now dotted with the tarpaulin and bamboo shacks of displaced Rohingya. NO TIMELINE FOR RETURNS
“We are concerned about the reports of pressures directed at this group of people at the border,” said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR Senior Public Information Officer at Cox’s Bazar.
“People who fled violence and discrimination in Myanmar should not be forced to return against their will,” she told Reuters in a message sent on Saturday.
Bangladesh’s Kalam said there was no timeline for repatriations, that anyone going back must do so voluntarily and that Myanmar must provide a safe environment for their return.
“We cannot send them forcibly,” he said.
Most Burmese consider the Rohingya as unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh, and the army refers to them as “Bengalis”.
Myanmar has said it will accept back people holding “national verification” registration cards. This card, which falls short of offering citizenship, has been rejected by Rohingya community leaders who say it treats life-long residents like new immigrants.
A leader of the Rohingya group in the buffer zone, Dil Mohammed, told Reuters in a text message: “Our no-man’s land camp demands are that there must be a safe return, we need security and all basic rights, including citizenship.”
He said the group would never accept the national verification card, that its members must be allowed to return to their own homes, paid compensation for losses and damage, and provided with protection from a U.N. mission.
Gluck said the UNHCR was concerned that conditions in Rakhine state were not yet safe for voluntary returns, adding, “We urge both governments to ensure that any return is based on informed consent and takes place in safety and dignity.”
(Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir and Antoni Slodkowski; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)