Myanmar has lifted travel restrictions on Rohingya Muslims who possess National Verification Cards (NVCs), a government minister said Thursday, adding that cardholders have a path to full citizenship “within five months.”
Minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement Win Myat Aye told reporters at the National Reconciliation and Peace Center in Yangon that Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are free to travel if they accept the NVC and fill out an associated immigration form.
“We are working on ensuring NVC holders have freedom of movement,” he said, although he acknowledged “problems” in providing refugees with the cards and said he was discussing how to “speed this process up” with relevant ministries.
“When NVC holders want to travel, they just need to fill out Immigration Form No. 4 and submit it to immigration officials. After that, they can travel wherever they want.”
Rohingya refugees and IDPs see the NVC—which Myanmar’s government says they must accept before they can become citizens—as unnecessary, and instead demand citizenship because they claim their forefathers were Myanmar nationals. Rohingya is an ethnicity not officially recognized in Myanmar.
Win Myat Aye urged the refugees to accept the NVC, noting that anyone who holds the card “can apply for citizenship and can become a citizen within five months.”
“We already have many people who became citizens within five months,” he added.
Meanwhile, nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled the August 2017 violence in Rakhine state to southeastern Bangladesh remain in camps there despite a deal reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar in November to repatriate them. The deal called for the process to begin in late January, but the two countries have yet to repatriate any Rohingyas.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh authorities gave their counterparts a list of 8,000 Rohingyas for verification by Myanmar. Only a few hundred had been authorized to return and none have started the process.
Win Myat Aye noted that he had visited the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar last week to “see what was responsible for delaying the refugee repatriation process.”
“We saw the reasons, such as that forms were filled out incorrectly, making it difficult for Myanmar immigration officials to identify the refugees,” he said.
“I met with Bangladesh’s foreign affairs and home affairs ministers to discuss further coordination with them to overcome the difficulties of the repatriation process.”
According to the RFA-affiliated BenarNews service, Win Myat Aye and his entourage visited Kutupalong on April 11 under tight security while Bangladeshi police used batons to disperse more than 200 protesters who gathered by the camp’s main road.
He called the visit—during which he told refugees he was working to repatriate them as soon as possible—a success, but participants in the meeting said there is no reason for them to return to Rakhine state if they will be forced to live in camps there, as the government has said.
Thein Maung, an official at the Dar Paing Muslim Refugee Camp in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that Rohingya IDPs would welcome an end to the travel restrictions “if they are really lifted.”
But he echoed grievances by other members of the ethnic group have voiced over citizenship restrictions, saying that they shouldn’t require NVCs in the first place.
“If our parents were holding National Registration Cards (NRC), we should have the same rights they had,” he said, referring to documents which identify their holder as a citizen of Myanmar.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a former lawmaker for Rakhine state and a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe, told RFA he also applauded an end to restrictions, but wondered whether the authorities would provide security for members of his ethnicity when they travel throughout the country, where they have faced discrimination and communal violence.
“The most important thing is to have rule of law … We’ll have to wait and see how the authorities manage,” he said.
Access to services
Also on Thursday, Ursula Mueller, the deputy emergency relief coordinator in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in New York that movement restrictions on Rohingyas in Rakhine state are limiting their access to critical services, following her recent visit to Myanmar.
“There is a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border that is affecting the world’s largest group of stateless people,” Mueller said.
“The unfolding tragedy in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar [Bangladesh] rightly captured the world’s attention, but we cannot, and must not, forget the plight of over 400,000 Muslim people still living in Rakhine State who continue to face a life of hardship and marginalization due to movement restrictions,” she added.
These restrictions severely compromise their rights and obstruct their access to health, livelihoods, protection, education, and other essential services, she said.
Mueller, who is also the U.N.’s assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, said that during an April 3 meeting with Myanmar’s state counsellor and de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi the two had discussed “ending the violence, of stability and peace and reconciliation” in Rakhine state and other parts of the country.
She also offered U.N. support to “address the humanitarian needs and the protection needs that are across the whole country, and advocated for access for humanitarian actors,” she said.
Reported by Aung Theinka and Thinn Thiri. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.