GENEVA (AN) — Two United Nations agencies and Myanmar have agreed to repatriate some of the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled their former homeland, despite the many serious concerns about whether they can safely return to the area where they suffered a campaign of military-led killings and violence.
Under an agreement signed on June 6, the U.N. Development Program and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would transport back to Myanmar's northern Rakhine state some of the Rohingya refugees who have been crowded into makeshift, squalid camps in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya endured widespread discrimination — denial of citizenship and basic human rights — in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which views them as Bangladeshi immigrants even though they settled long ago in the Rakhine region. Then they fled from mass killings, rapes and burning villages.
The signing took place in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw, according to a UNDP statement that called the agreement "a first and necessary step" towards creating the right conditions for "the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees" and helping them create livelihoods for themselves.
"The work begins now," said U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Knut Ostbytop, the organization's top official in Myanmar.
In May, a U.N. Security Council delegation visited Rakhine and urged Myanmar's government to improve security for the return of the refugees. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled their homes last year in the face of the crackdown by Myanmar's army after insurgents attacked their security posts.
The delegation from the 15-nation Security Council, the U.N.'s most powerful body, met with the country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other top officials. A deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh to begin repatriation was delayed after human rights groups and Rohingya expressed safety concerns.
Myanmar's military is accused of rapes, mass killings, torture and burning Rohingya homes. U.N. and U.S. officials described it as ethnic cleansing. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce said the aim of the Security Council trip in May was to ensure Rohingya can go home in a safe and dignified manner.
Skepticism over their safety
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at a press briefing in May the United Nations called on all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and to end the violence.
"Our humanitarian colleagues stress today that a population of around 500,000 Rohingya still live in Rakhine, facing continued discrimination and marginalization, including around 130,000 men, women and children who are trapped in appalling conditions in camps," said Haq.
"Severe restrictions on their freedom of movement persist, grossly restricting their access to health care, education and livelihoods," he said. "This is the reality that must be changed if refugees are to be reasonably expected to return."
Human rights groups doubted the Rohingya can safely return. Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network, told Anadolu Agency in April none wanted to go home. The U.N.'s World Food Program said it feeds 850,000 Rohingya a month due to widespread hunger and malnutrition.