DHAKA, Bangladesh - Bangladesh on Monday rejected a claim by Myanmar that the Buddhist-majority nation had repatriated the first five among some 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to the neighbouring country to escape military-led violence against the minority group.
A Myanmar government statement said Saturday that five members of a family had returned to western Rakhine state from the border area. It said the family was staying temporarily with relatives in Maungdaw town, the administrative centre close to the border.
The statement said authorities determined whether they had lived in Myanmar and provided them with a national verification card. The card is a form of ID, but does not mean citizenship — something Rohingya have been denied in Myanmar, where they've faced persecution for decades.
The statement did not say whether any more repatriations were being planned. Bangladesh has given Myanmar a list of more than 8,000 refugees to begin the repatriations, but there have been delays due to a complicated verification process.
On Monday, Bangladesh's home minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, said Myanmar's claim that the family had been "repatriated" was false, noting that the family had never reached Bangladeshi territory.
Khan said Myanmar's move was "nothing but a farce."
"I hope Myanmar will take all the Rohingya families back within the shortest possible time," he said.
Bangladesh's refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, said the Rohingya family involved had never crossed the border.
"By no definition can this be called repatriation," he said by phone from Cox's Bazar. "No repatriation has taken place. Bangladesh is no way part of it."
Cox's Bazar is a district in Bangladesh where camps have been set up to shelter the Rohingya.
Asif Munier, an independent refugee expert who had handled the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh for years as part of the United Nations, said Myanmar's claim was a public relations stunt.
"They are doing it again and again," he said. "Bangladesh's government and the international community must ask Myanmar for an explanation for this move. While there is a bilateral process going on and international agencies are involved, such a move by Myanmar is again very unfortunate and unexpected."
Myanmar's social welfare minister, Win Myat Aye, who is leading the repatriation process, said Monday that Myanmar had given the family the necessary documents.
"The five family members who re-entered Myanmar the other day were people who stayed along the border line between Myanmar and Bangladesh," he said. "As they were repatriated, Myanmar officials, including from immigration, had verified them and gave them the paperwork they needed."
Myanmar's security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of the homes of Rohingya villagers after insurgents attacked about 30 police outposts on Aug. 25. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as "ethnic cleansing."
About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flooded into neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in December to begin repatriating them in January, but there were concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that they would be forced to return and face unsafe conditions in Myanmar.
On Friday, the U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh finalized a memorandum of understanding that said the repatriation process must be "safe, voluntary and dignified ... in line with international standards."
UNHCR said it "considers 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."
Rohingya Muslims have long been treated as outsiders in Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.