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Myanmar repatriates first Rohingya family despite UN warnings

A nurse attended to five members of a Rohingya family, the first to be repatriated to Myanmar, from which hundreds of thousands have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
AFP/Myanmar News Agency
A nurse attended to five members of a Rohingya family, the first to be repatriated to Myanmar, from which hundreds of thousands have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.

NEW DELHI — Since August last year, more than half a million Rohingya have undertaken perilous journeys to Bangladesh to flee persecution and violence in Myanmar. Now, the first Rohingya family has been repatriated.

Myanmar’s government announced the return of the family in a Facebook post late Saturday. The family decided to go home despite warnings from the United Nations that conditions in the country are not right for refugees to head back.

An estimated 687,000 Rohingya — about half of Myanmar’s entire population of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic minority group — have left their homes in northern Rakhine state since violence erupted in August, crossing into Bangladesh and settling in vast and squalid refugee camps.

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Those who fled said they left because of widespread rape, arson, and killings. Hundreds of Rohingya were reportedly killed in the recent violence, and many houses and villages burned to the ground.

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The US government and the United Nations describe the violence against the Rohingya as ‘‘ethnic cleansing.’’

Myanmar has strongly denied that allegation, saying the army waged a legitimate operation against insurgent Rohingya militants who had attacked more than two dozen police posts and an army base in August.

The Rohingya exodus has created a humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh, a small, poor country that is one of the most densely populated in the world.

In an effort to address the crisis, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal in November to repatriate the Rohingya over the course of two years, beginning in January. After months of delays, five members of a Rohingya family went back to Rakhine on Thursday.

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A Facebook post on the official page of Myanmar’s Information Committee appears to show the family getting health checks and receiving packages of rice, mosquito netting, and blankets.

‘‘The five members of a family . . . came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state this morning,’’ the post said.

The pictures also show the family —one man, two women, and a young girl and boy — receiving controversial national verification cards, which Rohingya activists have rejected, saying they are a way to deny Rohingya people citizenship.

The Facebook post does not mention further plans to repatriate more Rohingya. Bangladesh has given Myanmar a list of 8,000 refugees to begin the process.

Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for many generations, most people in Myanmar consider them unwanted immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and refer to them as ‘‘Bengalis,’’ a term the Rohingya consider derogatory.

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The United Nations has warned that a mass repatriation of Rohingya would be premature. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday that ‘‘conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for returns to be safe, dignified, and sustainable.’’

“The responsibility for creating such conditions remains with the Myanmar authorities, and these must go beyond the preparation of physical infrastructure to facilitate logistical arrangements,’’ it said.

Waves of violence have forced Rohingya out of Myanmar over the past several years, with more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh before last year’s exodus. Many refuse to return without a guarantee of basic rights and citizenship.

Rohingya who have been repatriated in the past have been forced to live in camps in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, boats carrying Rohingya from Rakhine state continue to leave Myanmar. The most recent one, carrying 70 Rohingya, reportedly set out from Myanmar toward Malaysia on Thursday, the same day the family of five returned to Rakhine.

Last week, Myanmar’s social welfare minister, Win Myat Aye, met with about 40 Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh for more than an hour, sometimes exchanging heated words, the Associated Press reported.

A Rohingya leader, Abdur Rahim, said at least eight rape victims were among those who met with the minister. Rahim said the group presented 13 demands for the government to meet for their return to Myanmar.

Rahim said the group became angry when Win Myat Aye said the Rohingya refugees must accept national verification cards to be provided by Myanmar in which they state they are migrants from Bangladesh.