Myanmar has agreed to a United Nations refugee agency initiative for repatriating some of the nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown, a process that has raised concerns over the safety and treatment of those who return voluntarily, a Myanmar government official said Friday.
The United Nations Development Programme and U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) submitted a concept paper outlining plans for the repatriation of the refugees to the Myanmar government on March 9, said Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The Myanmar government, the UNDP, and the UNHCR have been planning to sign a memorandum of understanding on the repatriation of refugees in Bangladesh,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We will let them work together with us on the repatriation and resettlement process.”
Though the terms of the memorandum are is still being hammered out, the two U.N. agencies will work with Myanmar according to the mandate laid out in the document, Myint Thu said.
“We will sign the memorandum of understanding as soon as possible so that they [the UNDP and UNHCR] will have enough time to prepare whatever they have to do,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from the UNHCR on the latest development.
U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi warned in February that conditions were not yet conducive for stateless Rohingya refugees to voluntarily return to Myanmar because the government had not yet addressed their denial of basic rights and lack of citizenship.
The UNHCR took the Myanmar government to task earlier this year for its continued restrictions on access for aid agencies, the media, and other independent observers in the northern part of Rakhine state where the crackdown occurred.
Myanmar continues to prevent a U.N.-mandated independent investigative mission from entering the country to look into reports of atrocities committed by Myanmar soldiers against the Rohingya during the crackdown which was in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group in August.
List of 500 Rohingya
Bangladesh sent a list of more than 8,000 refugees who want to return home to northern Rakhine, but so far Myanmar officials have agreed to accept about 500 who have been “verified” for repatriation. Those 500 have yet to be processed for return.
Refugees who wish to return must prove that they resided in northern Rakhine before Oct. 9, 2016, when security forces moved into the area following smaller-scale attacks by the same Muslim militant group.
“We sent this list of 500 people back to Bangladesh, but haven’t heard from them about it yet,” Myint Thu said. “We are ready to receive these verified people when they send them to Myanmar.”
Bangladesh soon will send a second list with up to 10,000 names of Rohingya requesting repatriation to Myanmar, Bangladeshi media reported.
On Jan. 16, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement stipulating that the repatriations should be completed within two years from the start date of the first returns.
Myanmar officials in Rakhine have built two refugee processing centers and a transit camp to handle the returning refugees.
But rights groups have accused them of bulldozing the remains of torched Rohingya communities and farmland in recent months to hide evidence of crimes committed against the Muslims who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjected to systematic discrimination.
United Nations officials say the crackdown on the Rohingya amounts to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.
Those who escaped to Bangladesh live in squalid displacement camps in the southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar where they are in danger of flooding by annual monsoon rains expected to peak in July and August. Others are stuck in a no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
More than 150,000 residents of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee settlement — the world’s largest refugee camp — are at risk from flooding or landslides, according to a UNHCR report issued on Thursday.
The felling of trees to make room for more refugees and to use as fuel for cooking has increased the possibility of landslides.
The UNHCR said it and the NGO Caritas relocated the first 360 families deemed to be at greatest risk to higher ground in the western part of the camp.
The U.N.’s International organization for Migration will relocate other families, UNHRC said.
On March 16, U.N. agencies and their NGO partners issued a joint response plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis — a U.S. $951 million appeal to help both the refugees and more than 330,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in communities hosting them. The money will be used for food and water supplies, increased sanitation, the construction of thousands of classrooms, and preparations for the monsoonal rains.
The appeal came in addition to U.S. $434 million that the U.N. requested in October for emergency aid for what it has called “the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.” More than U.S. $320 million of that appeal has been collected.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.