Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to start repatriating Rohingya refugees within the next two months as global pressure mounts over the refugee crisis.
More than 620,000 Rohingya have poured over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh since August, running from a Myanmar military crackdown that Washington said this week clearly constitutes "ethnic cleansing".
After weeks of arguing over the terms of repatriation, the two sides agreed a deal in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on Thursday following talks between Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the foreign minister of Bangladesh, Abdul Hassan Mahmud Ali.
The exodus has been widely condemned in both Europe and the Arab world and Europe, with the US going as far as to call the acts against the Muslim minority “ethnic cleansing” and threatening sanctions against those responsible.
In a brief statement, Dhaka said the two sides had agreed to start returning the refugees in two months.
Ms Suu Kyi's office called Thursday's agreement a "win-win situation for both countries", saying the issue should be "resolved amicably through bilateral negotiations". A working group would be set up within three weeks to agree the arrangements for the repatriation.
In brief remarks to the press, Bangladesh's foreign minister Mr Ali said: "This is a primary step. (They) will take back (Rohingya). Now we have to start working."
The United Nations denounced the campaign, condemning heavily the many reports of rampant violence, killings and mass rape. It remains unclear how many Rohingya will be allowed back and how long the process will take.
Aung San Suu Kyi's office said the agreement regarding what it referred to as "displaced persons from Rakhine state" was signed by cabinet officials in Naypyitaw. The pact follows a formula set in a 1992 repatriation agreement signed by the two nations after an earlier outbreak of violence. Under that agreement, Rohingya were required to present residency documents -which few have — before being allowed to return to Myanmar.
Human rights groups have raised concerns about the process, as there is little information about where returning Rohingya will be resettled after hundreds of their villages were razed, and how their safety will be ensured in a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is surging.
The signing of the deal came ahead of a highly-anticipated visit to both nations from Pope Francis, who has been outspoken about his sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya.
Pope Francis is set to visit Myanmar soon, before going to Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of the refugees have suffered rape, torture, forcible displacement, and what Amnesty International has called “crimes against humanity”. The Burmese military denies all such allegations and verifying the Rohingyas' claims is all but impossible as access to the affected areas is denied to outsiders. The government even blocked visas for a UN fact-finding mission tasked with probing accusations of maltreatment by the military.
Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens nor as a group with its own identity, posing a dilemma for Francis as he visits a country of 51 million people where only around 700,000 are Roman Catholics. It is likely that the pontiff will meet with some military leaders but his advisers have warned him not to use the term "Rohingya" for fear of creating a diplomatic incident that could turn the predominantly Buddhist country against the Christian population.
The Pope will also meet Aung San Suu Kyi during his trip, which begins on November 26.
The leader of Myanmar’s two-year-old government faced heavy criticism from the international community with many suggesting she be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize. Earlier this month, US politicians proposed imposing sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar military officials, with whom Ms Suu Kyi shares power over the country.
The stateless Rohingya have for years been the victims of communal violence, vicious anti-Muslim sentiment and systematic government oppression that has stripped them of citizenship and severely restricts their movements and access to basic services.
The latest violence erupted after Rohingya rebels attacked police posts on August 25.