The deal, hammered out in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw this week, applies to approximately 750,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh following two army crackdowns in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in October 2016 and August last year.
Both campaigns followed attacks by militants from the stateless Muslim minority against border-guard posts.
A statement by the Bangladeshi government said the agreement aims to return Rohingya “within two years from the commencement of repatriation” but did not give a date for when refugees will start returning.
The deal does not cover the estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees who were living in Bangladesh prior to October 2016, driven out by previous rounds of communal violence and military operations.
It comes even as many Rohingya in the crowded, unsanitary camps in Bangladesh say they will not return to Rakhine, having fled atrocities including murder, rape and arson attacks on their homes.
Dhaka said yesterday that the countries had finally agreed on the form refugees will need to fill out to verify their belonging in Rakhine state.
While thin on details, the statement said verification would be based on “family units” and include orphans and “children born out of unwarranted incidence”.
Myanmar’s government later issued its own statement saying the sides had agreed to begin the repatriation process from January 23, though Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar, Mohammad Sufiur Rahman, said earlier that the physical movement of people would need more time.
Myanmar has faced intense diplomatic pressure to allow the safe return of Rohingya refugees after the incineration of hundreds of villages – violence the UN and US have described as ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group entitled to basic rights and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many living there for generations.
Rowshan Ali, a Rohingya cleric who lost several relatives in the crackdown and now lives in Balukhali refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, said no one wants to go back.
“No way we’ll go back. They will kill us if we return there,” he said.
Aid agencies have stressed the need for a safe and voluntary return, if repatriation takes place at all.
“We believe that the pace of the return should be dictated by the refugees themselves, that it’s really important to hear what they want, and they have been telling us that before they return they would like to see certain conditions in place,” Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency said.
Under the deal, Bangladesh said it would establish five “transit camps” to process refugees into two reception centres in Rakhine.
Despite concerns, authorities in Myanmar have pressed ahead with the construction of a “temporary camp” in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
Eventually the site “will accommodate about 30,000 people in its 625 buildings” before they can be resettled permanently, Myanmar’s state media reported this week.
In its statement yesterday, Myanmar also requested the extradition from Bangladesh of more than 1,000 Rohingya insurgents.
Myanmar’s military, which tightly controls information about Rakhine, had until recently denied any abuses and insisted the crackdown was a proportionate response to crush the “terrorist” threat.
But last week the army said its troops had participated in the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya “terrorists” in their custody, their first admission of any wrongdoing.
Rights groups and UN investigators say they have gathered testimony of massacres and campaigns of sexual violence against Rohingya women, while satellite photos show hundreds of Rohingya villages have been partially or totally destroyed.
Repeated rounds of violence since the 1970s have sent Rohingya fleeing across the narrow neck of water that separates Rakhine from Bangladesh.
Some refugees have never come back, while others have been repatriated in previous deals only to be forced out by fresh violence.
Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International, said that until the government dismantles the “apartheid regime” in Rakhine that limits Rohingya movement, “there can be no safe or dignified returns.”.