A Myanmar minister expressed concerns on Thursday about "very poor conditions" in Rohingya refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and said repatriation of the Muslim minority should start as soon as possible due to the coming monsoon season.
The United Nations and rights groups say a Myanmar military operation in the country's northwest in August has sent nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. Most live in flimsy, bamboo-and-plastic structures perched on hills around Cox's Bazar, in southern Bangladesh.
Fleeing Rohingya refugees have reported killings, rapes and arson on a large scale. The United States and the UN have described the military crackdown as ethnic cleansing, an accusation that Myanmar denies.
"Seeing is believing and we saw all the people in the camps are in very poor condition," Myanmar's Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye told reporters in the country's main city, Yangon, after his two-day visit to camps near Cox's Bazar.
"Our main thing is to start the repatriation process as soon as possible because the monsoon is very near and we are very worried for those who fled to Bangladesh," he said.
Myanmar said on Saturday it had repatriated the first Rohingya family. The Bangladeshi government and the United Nations refugee agency, however, said they had no knowledge of any such repatriation.
After months of fraught talks, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete a voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years. Myanmar set up two reception centres and what it says is a temporary camp near the border to house the first arrivals.
But a senior UN official who recently visited Myanmar said the country was not ready for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
Win Myat Aye said Rohingya returnees would be entitled to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs), which are part of the government's ongoing effort to register mostly stateless Rohingya that falls short of offering them citizenship.
He said those NVC holders would be in turn be granted citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar within five months after they were "scrutinized according to the law".
"Those who are entitled to become citizens will become citizens," he told Reuters, without elaborating.
Myanmar's panel of international advisers on Rohingya issues has warned the coming monsoon season could bring "enormous deaths" as refugee camps in Bangladesh are not built to withstand the storms.