Rohingya refugees who return to Myanmar from Bangladesh following a repatriation agreement will initially live in temporary shelters or camps, Dhaka said Saturday, a day after the UN raised concern for their safety when they go back.
The United Nations says more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August and now live in squalor in the world's largest refugee camp after a military crackdown in Myanmar that the UN and Washington have said clearly constitutes "ethnic cleansing".
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement on Thursday which would pave the way for the return of the refugees at the "earliest" opportunity, according to the deal, which Dhaka released on Saturday.
"Primarily they will be kept at temporary shelters or arrangements for a limited time," Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in the capital.
The comments come after the UN refugee agency UNHCR on Friday raised concerns over the agreement, saying conditions to enable refugees to safely return to Rakhine State were not in place.
Under the deal, Yangon will "encourage those who had left Myanmar to return voluntarily and safely to their own households" in Rakhine State or "to a safe and secure place nearest to it".
However most of the Rohingya villages were burnt during the violence, Ali said, and refugees would have no choice but to live in temporary shelters there.
"There are no houses. Where they will live? It is not possible to physically (return to their own homes)," he said.
Under the terms of the agreement, Myanmar will ensure temporary shelters are only a short-term option and that refugees' "freedom of movement in the Rakhine State will be allowed in conformity with the existing laws and regulations".
More than 100,000 Rohingya have been living in grim camps for internally displaced persons since violence erupted in Rakhine in 2012.
Rohingya activist Mohammad Zubair told AFP that "Rohingya people will never agree to voluntary repatriation if they are not taken back to their villages and their land returned to them".
He said Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a similar repatriation agreement in 1992, which led to the return of some 200,000 Rohingya to Rakhine, but unresolved problems, including the issue of citizenship, continue to fester.
The stateless Rohingya have been systematically oppressed by Myanmar, which has stripped the minority of citizenship and severely restricts their movement, as well as their access to basic services.
Myanmar's government says Rohingya are interlopers from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, even though many can trace their roots in Myanmar back generations.
"Unless we get citizenship in Myanmar, no way the Rohingya will this time return to Rakhine," Zubair said.
UNHCR has echoed the concerns of the Rohingya, saying all returns must include "the informed consent of refugees".
According to the agreement, some 700,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since October 2016 will be considered for repatriation.
But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of Rohingya -- some of whom fled Myanmar years or decades ago -- in Bangladesh.
"The repatriation of residents who crossed over to Bangladesh earlier will be considered separately on the conclusion of the present arrangement," the newly-signed deal said.
Impoverished and overcrowded Bangladesh has won international praise for allowing the refugees into the country, but has imposed restrictions on their movement and said it does not want them to stay.
The new agreement has already drawn criticism at home, with the main opposition party saying "taking steps to repatriate Rohingyas without stopping repression and genocide in their homeland will be tantamount to pushing them to the hell".