Rohingya refugees will be allowed to return to Myanmar "as soon as possible", a minister said, despite a stillborn repatriation process and UN warnings that the safety of returnees could not be guaranteed.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar's social welfare minister, made the comments in Dhaka late Thursday after visiting one of the Bangladesh camps struggling to provide for some of the one million Rohingya Muslims who have fled the country.
"We can overcome many difficulties we are facing," he told reporters after a meeting with Bangladeshi officials. "I am very sure we can start repatriation process as soon as possible."
Myanmar has repeatedly said it is ready for repatriation, but no date has been given for the return, and scepticism is rife in Bangladesh and elsewhere that the stalled refugee return plan will ever be implemented.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in November to repatriate three-quarters of a million Rohingya by the end of the year but the deal has been delayed indefinitely, with each side blaming the other for a lack of preparation.
Win Myat Aye had met with Rohingya leaders at the giant Kutupalong camp near Cox's Bazar, where a group of refugees tried to stage a protest during his visit.
Wednesday was the first time a Myanmar cabinet member has visited the overcrowded camps since a military crackdown that began last August in response to a spate of terrorist attacks, forcing some 700,000 of the Muslim minority to flee across the border.
They joined around 300,000 refugees already living there after previous bouts of violence.
Myanmar has so far approved fewer than 600 names from a list of more than 8,000 refugees provided by Bangladesh.
Last month a top Bangladesh cabinet minister, A.M.A Muhith, said it was unlikely the refugees would ever return, accusing Myanmar of deliberately obstructing the process.
The UN refugee agency said in a statement that Win Myat Aye's visit was an important "confidence-building" measure between the two governments, but that conditions in Myanmar "are not yet conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees."
The agency said the responsibility to create such conditions lies with Myanmar, and that refugees in Bangladesh want to see steps taken to ensure basic rights and security.
Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary general for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, visited northern Rakhine this month and said Myanmar still needs to address "critical issues of freedom of movement, social cohesion, livelihoods, and access to services".
Bangladesh foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, who led repatriation talks for his country, told reporters Thursday that the two sides were committed to implementing the refugee deal.
Many refugees say they fear a repeat of the persecution that forced them off their lands if they go back under the repatriation deal, and of being placed in temporary transit camps for an unknown period of time as they await new housing.