Dozens of Rohingya face charges for illegal travel in Myanmar after fleeing Rakhine state

YANGON (Reuters) – Dozens of Rohingya Muslims, including two children, appeared in court in Myanmar on Friday, the latest group to face charges after attempting to flee conflict-torn Rakhine state.

The group of about 20 were among 54 people from the Rohingya minority arrested on Wednesday on the outskirts of the commercial capital Yangon while trying to leave for Malaysia, according to judge Thida Aye.

“The immigration officer submitted the case because they found no identification cards from these people,” she told Reuters.

Some were barefoot, others clothed in colorful head-scarfs, as they were ushered into the small courtroom in Yangon. A small boy was naked from the waist down.

Defense lawyer Nay Myo Zar said they had fled Rakhine state, the western region where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions and have come under increasing pressure as government troops battle ethnic rebels.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017 to escape a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators have said was carried out with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings and rapes.

Myanmar says the army was fighting a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign against militants who attacked security posts.

Some 600,000 Rohingya remain in the country, confined to camps and villages where they are unable to travel freely or access healthcare and education. The vast majority lack citizenship.

The government says it is working on a national strategy to close camps and that Rohingya would not face movement restrictions if they accepted a so-called national verification card, which many reject, saying it labels them foreigners.

Rakhine state has for the past year been rocked by increasingly intense clashes between government troops and fighters from the Arakan Army, an insurgent group comprised of ethnic Rakhine, another mostly Buddhist minority.

Myanmar’s army said in a statement on Friday it would hold more court-martials over alleged abuses against Rohingya Muslims, after a government-appointed commission concluded soldiers committed war crimes.

For years, Rohingya on both sides of the border have attempted to flee for Thailand and Malaysia, some boarding boats organized by smugglers, a dangerous journey that has cost many lives.

On Thursday, 93 Rohingya arrested in November after they were found on a beach in the Irrawaddy delta region appeared in a separate court to face charges of traveling illegally, Radio Free Asia reported.

Hundreds more have been imprisoned in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

(Reporting by Yangon bureau; Editing by Ros Russell)

Exclusive: ‘Can’t eat, can’t sleep’ – Rohingya on Myanmar repatriation list

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Ruma Paul

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – For Nurul Amin, a Rohingya Muslim living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, the days since learning he and his family were among a group of people set to potentially be repatriated to Myanmar have been among the most frightening since they fled their home.

“I can hardly sleep at night for fear of getting forcibly repatriated. Since the time I heard that my name is on the list I can’t even eat,” says Amin, 35, who has four daughters, a wife and sister with him in the Jamtoli Camp in southeast Bangladesh.

Reuters identified and spoke to more than 20 of the roughly 2,000 Rohingya refugees on a list of people Myanmar has agreed to take back. Though officials say no-one will be forced to return against their will, all say they have been terrified since learning this month their names were on the list prepared by Bangladeshi officials and vetted by Myanmar.

The list has not been made public and not all those whose names are on it have been informed, say Bangladeshi camp officials, due to concerns of sparking widespread panic in a camp that shelters 52,000 refugees.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in late October to this month begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border to escape a Myanmar army crackdown, even though the United Nations’ refugee agency and aid groups say doubts persist about their safety and conditions in Myanmar should they return.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed from Rakhine state, in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, into Bangladesh from August last year after Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces triggered a sweeping military response.

Refugees said soldiers and local Buddhists carried out mass killings and rape during the violence in 2017, while U.N.-mandated investigators have accused the military of unleashing a campaign with “genocidal intent”.

Myanmar has denied almost all the allegations. It has rejected the U.N. findings as one-sided, and said the military action was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.

WILLING TO RETURN?

This week, the U.N.’s human rights investigator on Myanmar urged Bangladesh to drop the repatriation plan, warning that Rohingya still faced a high risk of persecution in Myanmar.

A Bangladesh foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named, said on Friday the country would not send any Rohingya back forcefully.

“The Bangladesh government is in talks with them to motivate them,” he said.

Separately, another foreign ministry official told Reuters the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would verify whether those shortlisted were willing to return.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a UNHCR representative in Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters that effort would start within a few days.

“We have not started the process yet but we will be carrying out an assessment of the voluntariness,” he said.

Dr Min Thein, director of the disaster management department at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in Myanmar, said his team was preparing for 2,000 people to return.

“The Immigration Department is doing the scrutinizing,” said Min Thein. An official at Myanmar’s Immigration Department declined to answer questions over the phone.

In late October, a delegation from Myanmar visited the camps in an effort to urge Rohingya to participate in the repatriation process.

“THROW US INTO THE SEA”

Refugees who spoke to Reuters said they did not trust the Myanmar authorities to guarantee their safety. Some said refugees would go back only if they got to return to their own land and were given citizenship.

“I’ll just consume poison if I am forced to go back. I saw my cousin shot dead by military … What is the guarantee that we’ll not be persecuted again?” said Abdur Rahim, 47, who previously owned a shop and 2 acres of land in Rakhine.

Nur Kaida, 25, who is the mother of a 19-month-old girl, said it “would be better to die in the camps rather go back and get killed or raped”.

On Friday, an alliance of humanitarian and civil society groups working in Rakhine and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, in a joint statement, warned sending people back would be “dangerous and premature”.

The group called on the governments of the two countries to ensure that refugees in Bangladesh were able to make a free and informed choice about their return. It also said U.N. agencies should have unimpeded access to all parts of Rakhine in order to monitor the situation in areas of potential return.

Recent days have seen dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh attempting to flee via sea to Malaysia, raising fears of a fresh wave of dangerous voyages.

But despite poor conditions in the camps prompting some to risk such a perilous route out, those like Muhammed Wares, 75, whose name is on the list, say it is better than going back.

“Why are they sending us back?” said Wares. “They may as well throw us into the sea.”

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka and Thu Thu Aung in Yangon; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S. imposes sanctions on Myanmar military over Rohingya crackdown

Rohingya refugees, who crossed the border from Myanmar two days before, walk after they received permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue on to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 19, 2017. Reuters photographer Jorge Silva: "This picture was taken after a huge group of people crossed into Bangladesh and then had to wait three days and nights for the Bangladeshi Army's permission to continue walking into the makeshift camps. The line of people seemed endless. Long hours moving slowly across the embankments of the rice field. Mothers with babies and pregnant women, elderly people with illnesses, men carrying their entire life on their shoulders. They were safe from violence, but the challenge of surviving was still waiting for them on this side of the river." REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on four Myanmar military and police commanders and two army units for involvement in what it called “ethnic cleansing” and other human rights abuses against the country’s Rohingya Muslims, the Treasury Department said.

The sanctions marked the toughest U.S. action so far in response to Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority which started last year and has driven more than 700,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh and left thousands of dead behind.

But the Trump administration did not target the highest levels of the Myanmar military and also stopped short of calling the anti-Rohingya campaign crimes against humanity or genocide, which has been the subject of debate within the U.S. government.

“Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Sigal Mandelker, using an alternative name for Myanmar.

“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behavior as part of a broader U.S. government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” Mandelker said.

The sanctions targeted military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing, and border police commander Thura San Lwin, in addition to the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions, the Treasury said.

A Reuters special report in June gave a comprehensive account of the roles played by the two infantry divisions in the offensive against the Rohingya.

Myanmar’s military has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Tim Ahmann and Makini Brice, David Brunnstrom; Editing by Bill Rigby)

U.N. envoy urges Security Council to visit Myanmar, Bangladesh

U.N. envoy urges Security Council to visit Myanmar, Bangladesh

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A top U.N. official recounted to the Security Council on Tuesday “heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities” by Myanmar soldiers against Rohingya Muslim women, urging the body to visit the region and demand an end to attacks on civilians.

Pramila Patten, special envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on sexual violence in conflict, said one woman told her she was held by Myanmar troops for 45 days and raped repeatedly, while another woman could no longer see out of one eye after it was bitten by a soldier during a sexual assault.

“Some witnesses reported women and girls being tied to either a rock or a tree before multiple soldiers raped them to death,” Patten told the Security Council.

“Some women recounted how soldiers drowned babies in the village well. A few women told me how their own babies were allegedly thrown in the fire as they were dragged away by soldiers and gang raped,” she said.

Patten said the 15-member Security Council should visit Myanmar – also known as Burma – and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where more than 626,000 refugees have fled to since violence erupted in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on Aug. 25.

She said that a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate end to violations against civilians in Rakhine state and outlining measures to hold the perpetrators accountable “would send an important signal.”

Myanmar’s army released a report last month denying all allegations of rapes and killings by security forces.

“This is unacceptable,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. “Burma must allow an independent, transparent and credible investigation into what has happened.”

“While we are hearing promises from the government of Burma, we need to see action,” she said.

Myanmar has been stung by international criticism for the way its security forces responded to Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya militants on 30 security posts. Last month the Security Council urged the Myanmar government to “ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine state.”

China’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wu Haitao said the crisis had to be solved through an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh and warned that any solution “reached under strong pressure from outside may ease the situation temporarily but will leave negative after effects.”

The two countries signed an agreement on voluntary repatriation Nov. 23. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman pushed on Tuesday for the United Nations to be involved in any operation to return Rohingya.

“Plans alone are not sufficient. We hope Myanmar will draw upon the wealth of expertise the U.N. can offer,” Feltman told the Security Council.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown)

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

By Damir Sagolj

COX’S BAZAR (Reuters) – Dawn hues of pink and purple reveal a dusty valley in Bangladesh’s southern hills quilted with a dense settlement of red tents home to more than 230 women and children grieving for lost husbands and fathers.

They are among more than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh since late August, following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants.

Roshid Jan, who walked for 10 days with her five children to Bangladesh after soldiers burned their village, wept when she spoke about her missing husband.

He was accused of being a member of the Rohingya militants and arrested with four other villagers 11 months ago, she said.

She had not seen him or heard about his fate since then.

Aisha Begum, a 19-year-old widow, said her husband was killed by Myanmar soldiers as their band of refugees headed for Bangladesh.

“I was sitting there by his body and just crying, crying, crying,” she said.

“He was caught and killed with knives. I found his body by the road. It was in three pieces,” she cried, recounting the events that brought her to the camp.

(Click http://reut.rs/2BHPPax for a photo essay)

Most Rohingya are stateless and seen as illegal immigrants by Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

The United Nations and United States have described the military’s actions as ethnic cleansing, and rights groups have accused the security forces of atrocities, including rape, arson and killings.

Myanmar’s government has denied most of the claims, and the army has said its own probe found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.

There are 50 tents and no men in the camp for widows and orphans, the biggest of three sites built with donor funds from Muslim-majority Pakistan in the refugee settlement of Balukhali not far from Bangladesh’s resort town of Cox’s Bazar.

Two makeshift kitchens provide space for cooking in small holes in the ground, a new well is being dug to supplement a water pump, and a big tent serves for prayers.

“For those who can’t pray, we have learning sessions on Monday and Friday in a special room,” said 20-year-old Suwa Leha, who serves as the camp’s unofficial leader.

Praying and reading the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was one of two conditions for admittance set by religious and group leaders, Suwa said. The other was that widows and orphans be selected from among the most vulnerable and needy.

The camp is marooned amid ponds and streams of dirty water left by the washing of clothes and dishes. Behind are thousands of dwellings in a vast refugee camp that sprang up during the crisis.

Still, the women are relieved to have their own space.

“For those with no protection, a camp like this is much safer,” said 22-year-old Rabiya Khatun, who lives there with her son. “No man can enter that easily. Also, the rooms are bigger and we have more chances of receiving some aid.”

Women and girls number about 51 percent of the distressed and traumatized Rohingya population in the Cox’s Bazar camps, the U.N. Women agency said in October.

“Women and children are also at heightened risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse or child and forced marriage,” it added.

Women and adolescent girls aged between 13 and 20 arriving from Myanmar typically had two to four children each, it said, with some of them pregnant.

No relief agencies officially run the camp for the widows and orphans but aid groups and individuals help out.

Rihana Begum lives with her five children in a room that is bare except for a few tomatoes, some religious books and clothes. On a thin mat lies her daughter, ill with fever, but fear of missing food handouts keeps them away from the doctor.

“I’m afraid to miss aid distribution. I can’t afford to miss it,” she said on the day ration cards from the World Food Program were distributed in the camp.

This week, Myanmar said it was finalizing terms for a joint working group with Bangladesh to launch the process of safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees within two months.

That may not be enough to allay Rihana Begum’s fears.

“I’m so afraid that I will never go back to Myanmar,” she said. “I would rather die here.”

(Reporting by Damir Sagolj; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Peace and stability must be restored in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state before any Rohingyas can return from Bangladesh, under international standards on voluntary repatriation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday.

Some 20,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in November, and at least 270 so far in December, bringing the total since violence erupted on August 25 to 646,000, according to the UNHCR and International Organization of Migration (IOM).

The two countries have signed an agreement on voluntary repatriation which refers to establishing a joint working group within three weeks of the Nov. 23 signing. UNHCR is not party to the pact or involved in the bilateral discussions for now.

“It is critical that the returns are not rushed or premature,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a briefing. “People can’t be moving back in into conditions in Rakhine state that simply aren’t sustainable.”

Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said on Tuesday that his government hoped returns would begin within two months. He was addressing the Human Rights Council, where the top U.N. rights official said that Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The UNHCR has not been formally invited to join the working group, although its Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements is holding talks in Bangladesh, Edwards said, adding that discussions were “still at a very preliminary stage”.

He could not say whether UNHCR was in talks with Myanmar authorities on its role, but hoped the agency would be part of the joint working group.

Edwards, asked whether the two-month time was premature, said: “The return timeline of course is something that we are going to have to look closely at … We don’t want to see returns happening either involuntarily or precipitously and before conditions are ready.”

In all, Bangladesh is hosting a total of more than 858,000 Rohingya, including previous waves, IOM figures show.

“We have had … a cycle of displacement from Rakhine state over many decades, of people being marginalized, of violence, of people fleeing and then people returning,” Edwards said.

“Now this cycle has to be broken, which means that we have to find a way to ensure that there is a lasting solution for these people.”

WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said that it had distributed food to 32,000 people in northern Rakhine in November.

“Everybody agrees that the situation is very dire on ground, that all of the U.N. agencies need more access, that the violence has to stop and that these people can live in safety where they want to live,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Rohingya refugees continue to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh even though both countries set up a timetable last month to allow them to start to return home, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR)said on Thursday.

The number of refugees appears to have slowed. 625,000 have arrived since Aug. 25. 30,000 came last month and around 1,500 arrived last week, UNHCR said

“The refugee emergency in Bangladesh is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world,” said deputy high commissioner Kelly Clements. “Conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhaine state are not in place to enable a safe and sustainable return … refugees are still fleeing.”

“Most have little or nothing to go back to. Their homes and villages have been destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed and human access is inadequate,” she said.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Nov. 23 to start the return of Rohingya within two months. It did not say when the process would be complete.

Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, according to the top U.N. human rights official this week. Mainly Buddhist Myanmar denies the Muslim Rohingya are its citizens and considers them foreigners.

UNHCR would make a fresh appeal to donors for funds after the end of February in next year, Kelly said.

(Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Myanmar forces may be guilty of genocide against Rohingya, U.N. says

Myanmar forces may be guilty of genocide against Rohingya, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, the United Nations’ top human rights official said on Tuesday, adding that more were fleeing despite an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to send them home.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that none of the 626,000 Rohingya who have fled violence since August should be repatriated to Myanmar unless there was robust monitoring on the ground.

Myanmar’s ambassador Htin Lynn said that his government was working with Bangladesh to ensure returns of the displaced in about two months and “there will be no camps”.

Zeid, who has described the campaign in the past as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”, was addressing a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva called by Bangladesh.

He described “concordant reports of acts of appalling barbarity committed against the Rohingya, including deliberately burning people to death inside their homes, murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls, and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques.”

“Can anyone – can anyone – rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” he told the 47-member state forum.

Zeid urged the Council to recommend that the U.N. General Assembly establish a new mechanism “to assist individual criminal investigations of those responsible”.

Prosecutions for the violence and rapes against Rohingya by security forces or by civilians “appear extremely rare”, Zeid said.

Marzuki Darusman, head of an independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said by video from Malaysia: “We will go where the evidence leads us…Our focus is on facts and circumstances of allegations in Myanmar as a whole since 2011.”

His team has interviewed Rohingya refugees including children in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, who recounted “acts of extreme brutality” and “displayed signs of severe trauma”, he said.

Myanmar has not granted the investigators access to Rakhine, the northern state from which the Rohingya have fled, he said. “We maintain hope that it will be granted early in 2018.”

Pramila Patten, special representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who interviewed survivors in Bangladesh in November, said: “I heard the most heart-breaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities reportedly committed in cold blood out of a lethal hatred of these people solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion”.

Crimes included “rape, gang rape by multiple soldiers, forced public nudity and humiliation, and sexual slavery in military captivity”, Patten said.

Myanmar denies committing atrocities against the Rohingya. Its envoy Htin, referring to the accounts, said: “People will say what they wanted to believe and sometimes they will say what they were told to say.”

The United Nations defines genocide as acts intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. A U.N. convention requires all countries to act to halt genocide and to punish those responsible.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Bangladesh could move some Rohingya to flood-prone island next year: official

Bangladesh could move some Rohingya to flood-prone island next year: official

By Krishna N. Das and Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh could start relocating Rohingya Muslim refugees to a flood-prone island off its coast in the middle of next year, a government official said on Thursday, as it pushes ahead with the plan despite criticism from aid agencies and rights groups.

Densely populated Bangladesh has seen an influx of more than 620,000 Rohingya to its southern-most district of Cox’s Bazar, fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar, since August.

This week, it approved a $280 million plan to develop the low-lying Bhashan Char island to temporarily house some of them until they can go home.

The Bay of Bengal island, also known as Thenger Char, only emerged from the silt off Bangladesh’s delta coast about 11 years ago.

Two hours by boat from the nearest settlement, the island has no roads or buildings and it regularly floods during the rough seas of the June-September rainy season.

When the sea is calm, pirates roam the waters in the vicinity to kidnap fishermen for ransom.

“We can’t keep such a large number of people in this small area of Cox’s Bazar where their presence is having a devastating effect on the situation on the ground environmentally, population wise and economically,” H.T. Imam, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, told Reuters on Thursday.

“So, as quickly as we can shift at least some of the burden over to Bhashan Char, that will minimize the problem.”

Rohingya have fled repression in Buddhist-majority Myanmar several times since the 1970s, and almost one most million of them live in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Mainly Muslim Bangladesh has said it aims to move about 100,000 refugees to the island.

Some aid officials speculate that by raising the island plan, Bangladesh could be trying to put pressure on the international community to find a better solution to the crisis.

But Imam, who holds the rank of cabinet minister, has denied any such tactic.

‘HUGE PROJECT’

He said the navy had started work on developing the island, money for which will come from the government.

Bangladesh, however, would need financial and other help from aid agencies to move the refugees to the island, he said.

“There are some organizations which have assured help but I won’t specify who they are,” Imam said.

“It’s a huge project and includes the development of livestock. They will be given cattle, they will be given land, they will be given houses. They will raise their livestock, there will be other vocations that will be created.”

Humanitarian agencies, however, have criticized the plan since it was first floated in 2015.

“Having opened its doors to more than 600,000 Rohingya over the past three months, the Bangladesh government now risks undermining the protection of the Rohingya and squandering the international goodwill it has earned,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, referring to the plan to move people to the island.

“In its desperation to see the Rohingya leave the camps and ultimately return to Myanmar, it is putting their safety and well-being at risk.”

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an accord last week on terms for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, though rights groups have expressed doubts about Myanmar following through on the agreement and have called for independent observers for any repatriation.

There are concerns about protection for Rohingya from further violence if and when they go home, and about a path to resolving their legal status – most are stateless – and whether they would be allowed to return to their old homes.

Imam said Bangladesh was working on those issues but did not give details.

“In diplomacy, there are a lot of things that happen but then you don’t pronounce them publicly,” he said. “A lot of back-door diplomatic work is being done. People are involved at the highest level.”

For a graphic on Bangladesh’s Rohingya relocation plan, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2kULcWn

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Bangladesh to turn island into temporary home for 100,000 Rohingya refugees

Bangladesh to turn island into temporary home for 100,000 Rohingya refugees

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh approved a $280 million project on Tuesday to develop an isolated and flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to temporarily house 100,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

The decision came just days after Bangladesh sealed a deal aiming to start returning Rohingya to Myanmar within two months to reduce pressure in refugee camps.

A Bangladeshi government committee headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved the plan to develop Bhashan Char island, also known as Thenger Char, despite criticism from humanitarian workers who have said the island is all but uninhabitable.

Planning Minister Mustafa Kamal said it would take time to repatriate the refugees, and in the meantime Bangladesh needed a place to house them. The project to house 100,000 refugees on the island would be complete by 2019, he said.

“Many Rohingya people are living in dire conditions,” he said, describing the influx of refugees as “a threat to both security and the environment”.

More than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims have sought sanctuary in Bangladesh after the military in mostly Buddhist Myanmar launched a harsh counter-insurgency operation in their villages across the northern parts of Rakhine State, following attacks by Rohingya militants on an army base and police posts on Aug. 25.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali appealed in September for international support to transport Rohingya to the island.

There were already about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh before the most recent exodus.

Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest and most crowded nations, plans to develop the island, which emerged from the silt off Bangladesh’s delta coast only 11 years ago and is two hours by boat from the nearest settlement.

It regularly floods during the June-September monsoons. When seas are calm, pirates roam the nearby waters to kidnap fishermen for ransom. A plan to develop the island and use it to house refugees was first proposed in 2015 and revived last year. Despite criticism of the conditions on the island, Bangladesh says it has the right to decide where to shelter the growing numbers of refugees.

(Editing by Alison Williams)