Draft MoU Details Principles For Return of Rohingya Refugees to Myanmar

A leaked copy of the confidential agreement provides new information about Myanmar’s repatriation plans.

Rohingya refugees stand behind a fence in the 'no-man's land' between the Myanmar and Bangladesh border, as seen from Maungdaw district in western Myanmar's Rakhine state, June 29, 2018.

A draft of a confidential memorandum of understanding between the Myanmar government and two United Nations agencies says Rohingya Muslim refugees who voluntarily return to the country from neighboring Bangladesh will be sent to their original places of residence or to a secure place of their choice nearest to those locations.

They will also have the same freedom of movement as other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, the document says.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population signed the MoU with the United Nations development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies on June 6, but the document and its terms have not been issued publicly.

A copy of the draft MoU obtained by RFA’s Myanmar Service outlines the general principles and the scope of the parties’ cooperation in returning and reintegrating some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled northern Rakhine state after two brutal crackdowns by security forces in October 2016 and August 2017, which included killings, rape, and arson.

The first campaign drove roughly 90,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, while the second forced more than 700,000 to flee. The refugees have been living in sprawling makeshift camps in southeastern Bangladesh with others who escaped from previous bouts of violence in Rakhine.

“[T]hose who have left Myanmar are to return voluntarily and safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice based on their well-informed decision,” the MoU says.

It also says: “The returnees will enjoy the same freedom of movement as all other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, in conformity with existing laws and regulations, and in conformity with the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission.”

After the residency of returning refugees has been verified, Myanmar's labor ministry will issue identification documents to the returnees and “ensure a clear and voluntary pathway to citizenship to those eligible,” the MoU says.

Because Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, it has systematically discriminated against them, denying them citizenship — though some have lived in the country for generations — freedom of movement, and access to educations, jobs, and health care.

The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the multiethnic state, although it did not evaluate possible human rights violations by security forces.

Its final report issued in August 2017 called for the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine that house Rohingya displaced by communal violence in 2012, reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law which prevents the minority group from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on the Rohingya to preclude further violence in the region.

A durable solution

The MoU, which does not refer to the Rohingya by name, also says that the government will work for a “durable and comprehensive solution to the displacement of persons in and from Rakhine state,” and that the parties to the agreement will conduct assessments, planning, coordination, fundraising, and implementation activities with regard to relevant humanitarian and development actions.

“The parties agree to the principle that assistance must be designed and implemented in a way that is conflict sensitive, inclusive, and non-discriminatory, taking into account international humanitarian and development principles,” the MoU says.

Under the agreement, the UNHCR will provide assistance with the voluntary repatriation and resettlement program through protection activities, community consultations, and site visits, and support programs that benefit all communities in potential return areas.

The UNDP is tasked with coordinating and providing support to assessments related to building resiliency in communities in Rakhine, including sustainable livelihoods, conflict sensitivity, and local institutional capacity building at selected project sites, and with undertaking the planning process for the recovery and development that will benefit returnees.

“Activities on repatriation, reintegration assistance, and resilience-based recovery and development under this MoU will be aimed at helping returnees to resume their normal life in the shortest possible time,” the document says.

Rights groups have criticized the parties to the MoU for not publicly releasing the terms of the agreement.

But the document says, “The parties shall ensure that information under this MoU is not transferred or supplied to any third party without prior written consent from all parties.”

Myanmar and the two U.N. agencies must submit written notice to terminate their agreement or temporarily suspend its execution three months in advance of the effective date.

The MoU is in effect for 12 months from the date of its signing. The parties must decide whether to agree to an extension of the MoU at least 90 days before its expiration date on July 5, 2019.

The UNHCR also signed a separate MoU with Bangladesh in April regarding the return of the Rohingya refugees.

The U.N., rights groups, and other members of the international community have said that the August 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, and the repatriation plan has failed to overcome the group's fears of returning to places where many were killed and their villages burned.

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali (front row, 2nd from R) sits in an office during a visit to western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Aug. 11, 2018. Credit: Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Visit by Bangladeshi FM

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali is meanwhile on a four-day visit to Rakhine state to discuss issues related to the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh on Nov. 23, 2017, to take back the refugees who wished to voluntarily return to Myanmar and whose prior residency in the country could be verified.

During a ministerial meeting, the two sides agreed on the need to speed up the implementation of the repatriation program. Ali also cited the need to accelerate the creation of an environment conducive to the refugees' return in northern Rakhine state, according to a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Foreign affairs on Aug. 11.

Myanmar, which has built two refugee reception centers and one transit camp with a capacity for handling 30,000 people, has identified 42 resettlement sites and is erecting prefabricated housing for the returnees in selected locations, the statement said.

Though Myanmar previously said it was prepared to begin taking back refugees in January, the program has been beset by delays, with each side blaming the other.

“[The] two governments will keep working on the repatriation process according to [their] agreement,” said Aung Tun Thet, member of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), a Myanmar government initiative to rebuild infrastructure and the economy in the tattered state and to return and resettle the refugees.

Members of the UEHRD, which is chaired by the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, met with Ali on Aug. 10 in Naypyidaw to discuss repatriation readiness in accordance with the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Myanmar government also asked the Bangladeshi foreign minister to stop providing humanitarian aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNDP, and international NGOs to the 6,000 Rohingya refugees living in a no-man’s land on the border line between the two countries, according to the statement issued by Bangladesh’s foreign affairs ministry.

Instead, Myanmar proposed delivering aid from the Myanmar side, it said.

The refugees living in the no-man’s land have previously demanded that the Myanmar government grant them citizenship, ensure their safety, and rebuild their destroyed houses.

“The border line area is the place where nobody is in [one country or the other],” Aung Tun Thet said. “As long as people live in this area, we will have difficulties and challenges. That’s why we have been asking the people who live in this area to move out.”

Bangladesh said it “responded positively” to Myanmar’s proposal to conduct a new joint survey of the no-man’s land area, the statement said.

Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.