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Burmese and Bangladeshi representatives held talks about 5,300 Rohingya Muslims trapped on a strip of unclaimed land between their two countries and visited the area on Tuesday, officials and Rohingya refugees told Reuters.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Burma’s Rakhine State and crossed into Bangladesh since August, when attacks on security posts by insurgents triggered a military crackdown that the United Nations has said amounts to ethnic cleansing, with reports of arson attacks, murder and rape.
A leader of Rohingya people living in the buffer zone, Dil Mohammed, told Reuters that during the visit the Rohingya reiterated their demands, including for UN peacekeeping forces to be stationed in Rakhine, and for aid agencies and media to have free access to the state.
Bangladeshis urged the Rohingya to return to Burma.
“We have asked them [Burmese authorities] to ensure their safety and security and only after that Bangladesh is ready to coordinate them,” said Bangladeshi Relief and Refugee Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam.
“We visited the Rohingya with the Myanmar delegation and requested them to go back to their homes. They said … they are willing to return to their land, but for that they need to ensure safety and security,” said Kalam.
Deputy Director Kyaw Swar Tun from Rakhine State’s administration confirmed that the meeting had taken place but did not elaborate.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR, which was not involved in the talks, has expressed concern the Rohingya may be forced back to Burma without due consideration for their safety.
A UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, said there was no clarity as to what the people living in the unclaimed land wanted to do.
“This is no safe place to be — so we would like to see clarity about the wishes of the group. Some clearly have indicated that they would want to seek safety in Bangladesh,” said Mahecic.
Buddhist-majority Burma denies accusations of human rights abuses and says its military has fought a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” it has blamed for the attacks on the security forces.
The majority of Rohingya who fled are in camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of southern Bangladesh, but several thousand in the border buffer zone are stuck.
Bangladesh security forces have been instructed not to let those Rohingya cross the border, and many of them have said they would rather stay there to avoid becoming refugees in Bangladesh.
The no-man’s land, which is about the size of 40 soccer pitches, used to be an area of paddy fields, but is now dotted with the tarpaulin and bamboo shacks of displaced Rohingya.