Five months after the violence began, Burma and Bangladesh were on the brink of repatriating up to 1,500 Rohingya people last week, with plans to return all "eligible" refugees over two years under an agreement widely criticized by the United Nations and aid groups, which warn that it could thrust the refugees back into danger in Burma.
The deal, which was brokered without the involvement of the international community, does not address issues that Rohingya refugees and aid groups say are key: safety, citizenship and sustainable housing. Without those guarantees, many refugees are unlikely to repatriate voluntarily, experts say, potentially prolonging what U.N. officials have referred to as "the most urgent refugee emergency in the world."
"As of today, the necessary safeguards for potential returnees are absent, and there are continued restrictions on access for aid agencies, the media and other independent observers," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said Jan. 23 in a briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Bangladeshi authorities delayed the planned start of the returns last week, and it remains unclear when they will begin. Refugees have held several protests in recent weeks inside the camps in Bangladesh in opposition to the repatriation deal.
The Burmese government said last week that it was prepared to begin the repatriation process.
"No matter what, from our side, Myanmar is ready to start the process,'' said Win Myat Aye, Burma's social welfare minister, using another name for the country.
According to the terms of the agreement, voluntary refugees who are able to prove past residency in Burma and show that they left after Oct. 9, 2016 — documentation most refugees lack — will be allowed back into the country and issued "national verification cards." Approved refugees will then be moved to state-built camps, where they will remain until their destroyed homes are rebuilt. Those who are not on what the deal calls a "list of eligible returnees" will be sent back to Bangladesh.
From there, details of the deal quickly become hazy, with no mention of continued security, citizenship past the initial verification cards, or the guarantee of freedom of movement outside the camps — something Rohingya people have lacked in previously established camps in Burma.
"Refugees on the Bangladesh side of the border are telling us about their fears of returning," said Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, a human rights group. "There's a fear that the Rohingya will be brought back to a situation of mass arbitrary confinement."
The deal comes months after Aung San Suu Kyi, the government's de facto leader, announced that Burma would embrace recommendations made by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State — a joint initiative of the Kofi Annan Foundation and Burma's government — that include granting broader access for journalists and aid organizations, providing security for all groups, and the revision of the current restrictive citizenship laws.
Yet there has been little tangible progress in implementing the recommendations.
"The government of Myanmar is trying to convince the world that it's doing the right things without making any fundamental changes on the ground," Smith said. "We've seen this in establishment of various commissions where authorities have tried to convince the international community that they're taking seriously the allegation of human rights violations and investigating them, when really they've been a series of whitewashes."
The violence began in August, when militant Rohingya people attacked Burmese police, prompting a military crackdown that included reports of rape, widespread arson and extrajudicial killings, with estimates as high as 6,700 dead. Both U.N. and U.S. officials have referred to the violence as "ethnic cleansing."
The government of Burma has denied accusations of widespread atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
"Rohingya refugees shouldn't be returned to camps guarded by the very same Burmese forces who forced them to flee massacres and gang rapes, and torched villages," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, in a statement.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Burma's western Rakhine state who have faced decades of persecution. Many in Burma — a predominantly Buddhist nation — consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and have largely supported nationalist campaigns that call for the removal of them from the country. Even the term "Rohingya" is widely rejected in Burma, where they are commonly referred to as "Bengali."
The most recent repatriation initiative is not the first for Rohingya refugees fleeing from Burma to Bangladesh.
In the late 1970s, thousands of Rohingya refugees starved to death after Bangladeshi authorities cut food rations in camps in an attempt to force refugees back. In the 1990s, Bangladesh deported thousands of unwilling Rohingya refugees who had fled brutal clearance operations conducted by the Burmese military.
In 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya people fleeing violence were placed in "temporary" camps throughout Rakhine state. Unlike the 650,000 Rohingya now languishing in Bangladesh who were forced from their villages, those in camps for internally displaced people remain in Burma and suffer from restrictions on access to humanitarian aid and freedom of movement. Even going to a hospital outside the camps requires written permission from government officials — a fate many fear awaits refugees returning to the country.