Two United Nations agencies on Wednesday urged the Myanmar government to make “tangible progress” in improving conditions in violence-ridden Rakhine state, two months after they signed a memorandum of understanding with the country to assist with the return of some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced by military crackdowns.
The U.N. development agency (UNDP) and refugee agency (UNHCR) have agreed to help return and reintegrate the Rohingya refugees, assess conditions in Rakhine for those who are contemplating returning, and support programs that benefit all communities in the multiethnic state.
Myanmar security forces conducted two brutal crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine following deadly attacks by a Muslim militant group in the northern part of the state in October 2016 and August 2017.
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.
The U.N., which has said that the 2017 military campaign against the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing, has raised concerns along with rights groups about the safety of refugees who will return to Rakhine under a repatriation program.
Since signing the MoU, the Myanmar government has formed a technical working group with the agencies, allowed senior UNHCR and UNDP officials to visit northern Rakhine, and arranged an initial field visit to the state by the technical working group.
“However, substantial progress is urgently needed in three key areas covered by the MoU: granting effective access in Rakhine state; ensuring freedom of movement for all communities; and addressing the root causes of the crisis,” a statement issued by the two agencies said.
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjects them to systematic discrimination. They are denied access to basic services and citizenship, though many have lived in the country for generations. The government also denies them freedom of movement.
Many Rohingya refugees in the Bangladesh camps have said they remain afraid to return to Myanmar, which has agreed to repatriate those verified as eligible to return. Adding to concerns is the fact that the contents of the U.N.-Myanmar MoU have not been made public.
The agencies also said that their staff must be able to consult freely and independently on a daily basis with communities in Rakhine state about their needs, under flexible travel authorization procedures that allow timely visits to those communities.
The UNHCR and UNDP submitted requests for travel authorizations on June 14 for their international staff to be based in Maungdaw district — one of three areas in Rakhine where the 2017 crackdown took place — but are still waiting for government approval.
Addressing the root causes
The agencies also stressed the need for freedom of movement and the increased delivery of public services for all communities in Rakhine state, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or citizenship status, but noted that the remaining Rohingya have been most affected by violence and continue to face restrictions on basic access to services.
They called for the government to address the root causes of the crisis by implementing the recommendations of a previous Advisory Commission on Rakhine State headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and an opportunity for eligible Rohingya to become Myanmar citizens.
The advisory commission proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state, although it did not evaluate possible human rights violations.
Its final report issued in August 2017 called for the closure of internally displaced persons camps housing Rohingya in Rakhine state, reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on Rohingya to preclude further violence in the region.
Rohingya community leaders have criticized Myanmar and the U.N. agencies for not consulting them on the terms of the MoU, and especially for the lack of commitment from the government to meet their demands as a precondition for the safe return of refugees to Rakhine.
The Myanmar government has not yet issued a response to Wednesday’s appeal by the two U.N. agencies.
The UNHCR signed a similar MoU with Bangladeshi officials in April and has been working with the government to verify the identities and issue ID cards for Rohingya refugees.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement for the voluntary return of Rohingya refugees last November, but so far only several dozen refugees returned illegally on their own in May.
Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RFA on July 27 that Myanmar would repatriate 500,000-700,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh who fled after the 2017 crackdown and after communal violence in 2012, but not the one million cited in some foreign news reports.
He also said that officials would process 1,500 Rohingya refugees a week at border reception areas in northern Rakhine state during the first phase of the repatriation program.