KUTUPALONG, BANGLADESH — A top-level Myanmar government delegation began repatriation talks with Rohingya leaders in a Bangladesh refugee camp on Saturday, an official said, with many of the Muslim minority fearing for their safety if they return home.
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled a 2017 crackdown by Myanmar's military and are living in squalid conditions in camps in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar.
The two countries signed a repatriation deal in November 2017 but so far virtually no Rohingya have volunteered to go back to Myanmar, where the group has faced decades of repression.
The Myanmar team, led by permanent foreign secretary U Myint Thu, arrived in Cox's Bazar on Saturday amid tightened security in the camps.
The delegation visited Kutupalong — the world's largest refugee settlement — where they discussed repatriation with Rohingya community leaders over several hours, said Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam.
"Both parties seemed positive about it and the discussion will continue [Sunday]," he told AFP.
One of the Rohingya leaders who joined the talks, Dil Mohammad, said they "went well" as he reiterated demands for Myanmar to recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group.
"We hope this discussion will be fruitful. We told them that we won't return unless we are recognized as Rohingya in Myanmar," he said.
Myanmar denies the minority citizenship and refers to them as "Bengalis" — implying that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Second such session
It was the second time in less than a year that Myanmar officials were trying to persuade Rohingya refugees to return to their homeland in violence-wracked Rakhine state, after a repatriation offer was rejected by Rohingya leaders in October.
The massive camps have sparked tensions between the neighboring nations, with Bangladesh blaming Myanmar for delays in repatriating the refugees.
Dhaka has said it will not force any Rohingya to leave, while Myanmar has faced international pressure to allow the Rohingya to return to Rakhine and grant them citizenship rights.
The U.N. has complained that progress to address the refugee crisis has been far too slow.
The new visit comes in the wake of talks between Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
China is a key ally of Myanmar, and Hasina said then that Beijing would "do whatever is required" to help resolve the Rohingya crisis.