17 July 2018

Myanmar not ready for return of Rohingya Muslims, says UNHCR

KONFRONTASI - The UN refugee agency has said that conditions in Myanmar are not ready for the return of persecuted Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a military crackdown in Rakhine state last year.  

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement on Thursday that Myanmar was not prepared for Rohingya repatriation. It noted that the responsibility remains with the government to create such conditions.

"Conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees," the statement read.

The Rohingya refugees are living in overcrowded camps in the port of Cox's Bazar and Bangladesh is keen for them to return home soon, especially with the oncoming monsoons expected to cause major devastation at the site.  

The UNHCR called on Myanmar to provide the agency unhindered access in Rakhine to assess the situation and monitor the return and reintegration of refugees if and when they voluntarily return.

The photo, taken on October 14, 2016, shows smouldering debris of burned houses in an abandoned Muslim village in Warpait, Myanmar's Rakhine state. (Photo by AFP)

This comes as the refugee agency is set to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh, laying out a framework for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. 

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said on Wednesday that the MoU is aimed at establishing cooperation between the UN agency and Bangladesh “on the safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of refugees in line with international standards, if and when the conditions are conducive to returns.” 

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye told Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday to set aside the past and to prepare to go back. The minster who heads rehabilitation efforts in Myanmar's troubled western Rakhine state also promised new villages would be built with hospitals and schools.

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye (L) talks to Rohingya refugees during his visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on April 11, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

But some refugees have said they are worried about going back, fearing persecution.

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement late last year to repatriate some 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have crossed the border since August to escape a brutal crackdown by the military.

The repatriation was delayed due to a lack of preparation as well as protests staged by Rohingya refugees against the plan to send them back to Myanmar while conditions were not safe for their return.

Myanmar has approved several hundred Rohingya Muslims from a list of thousands to return to their homeland but not a single one has yet crossed back. 

The camps in southeastern Bangladesh are home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees in total. Even before the latest influx began last August, the camps were home to roughly 300,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled previous waves of violence.

Myanmar’s government troops have been committing killings, making arbitrary arrests, and carrying out arson attacks in Muslim villages in Rakhine over the past months. 

The UN has stopped short of officially designating the purge of Muslims from Myanmar as genocide, but it has reiterated that the crackdown, which has seen many people killed, lots of homes and villages torched and women raped by the military and Buddhist mobs, is a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

The UN has also described the 1.1-million-strong Muslim community as the most persecuted minority in the world.[ptv]