TEKNAF, Bangladesh: Myanmar officials were meeting with Rohingya refugees on Wednesday in what Bangladeshi authorities said was the revival of a long-stalled effort to return the stateless minority to their homeland.
Bangladesh is home to about a million Rohingya, most of whom fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar, now subject to a United Nations genocide investigation.
Both countries signed an agreement to return them later that year, but little progress has been made, leaving the refugees to languish in squalid relief camps.
Shamsud Douza, Bangladesh's deputy refugee commissioner, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that a 17-member team, led by a senior official in Myanmar's Immigration Ministry, arrived in the border town of Teknaf on Wednesday morning.
More than 700 Rohingya will be interviewed by the delegation to assess the suitability of their return to Myanmar, an official from the commission said.
It was "the first time since 2017 a Myanmar team has arrived to interview in person the Rohingya refugees for repatriation," a senior Foreign Ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"We expect repatriation will start before the monsoon," he said, referring to the rains that inundate the region every June.
The official insisted that no Rohingya would be returned against their will.
A spokesman for Myanmar's junta confirmed the visit to AFP, but said he could not provide details.
Beijing is mediating between both countries on the renewed repatriation push, and Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Yao Wen told reporters on Tuesday that repatriation would start "very soon."
This month, Chinese and Bangladeshi diplomats went on a tour of Myanmar border areas to examine preparations for the return of refugees, Beijing's embassy in Myanmar said this week.
The repatriation plan agreed in 2017 failed to make any significant headway in the years since, partly over concerns the Rohingya would not be safe if they returned.
Progress ground to a complete halt during the coronavirus pandemic and after the military's overthrow of Myanmar's civilian government in 2021.
Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, home to most of the world's Rohingya before the 2017 crackdown, is also the site of an on-off insurgency between Myanmar's military government and the insurgent Arakan Army.
Ismat Ara, a Rohingya woman scheduled to be interviewed by the Myanmar delegation, said she was unwilling to return unless it was safe to do so.
"They have to ensure our safety," she said. "If they ensure the safety of our lives and if we are recognized as citizens, only then we will go to Myanmar."