First group of refugees to be sent back to Myanmar next week but critics say details are unclear
Concerns are growing among United Nations agencies and humanitarian groups over an agreement between the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments to repatriate several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees within two years.
Bangladesh state media reported on Wednesday that the first batch of Rohingya would be sent back to Myanmar next week. Rights groups said it remained unclear whether refugees would be forced to return against their will.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said the repatriation deal finalised in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw, on Tuesday also needed to clarify whether Rohingya would be permitted to return to their homes or live in specially built camps.
“The worst would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in Myanmar,” Guterres said at a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York.
The deal included no role for the UN refugee agency, he added, making it difficult to “guarantee that the operation abides by international standards”.
About 750,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after army crackdowns in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state starting in October 2016 and August last year. The Muslim minority have faced decades of systemic oppression in Myanmar; the US government has described the most recent violence as ethnic cleansing.
“If the Rohingya are to return to Myanmar, it is critical for them to feel assured that their protection will be assured and they will not be subject to the oppression and violence they lived under for decades,” he said.
Ronalds said the “minimum conditions” for any deal needed to include the provision of basic rights to the Rohingya such as citizenship, freedom of movement and unimpeded access to jobs.
Under Tuesday’s agreement, the refugees will be moved from five camps near the Bangladesh border to two reception centres on the Myanmar side. From there they will be taken to temporary accommodation at a 124-acre camp near Maungdaw township.
More than 100,000 people are living in camps for internally displaced people in Myanmar, many in conditions UN agencies have described as appalling.
Those who have been moved out of the camps have been resettled in places “where they will have job opportunities”, the country’s minister for social welfare, Win Myat Aye, has said.
Amnesty International described plans to return the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as “alarmingly premature”. “The Rohingya have an absolute right to return to and reside in Myanmar but there must be no rush to return people to a system of apartheid. Any forcible returns would be a violation of international law,” said James Gomez, a regional director for the organisation.
The top UN official responsible for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who was recently banned from the country, said on Wednesday she would continue her work from Thailand and Cox’s Bazaar in southern Bangladesh, where the majority of Rohingya are living in aid camps.
“By not giving me access to Myanmar and by refusing to cooperate with the mandate, my task is made that much more difficult, but I will continue to obtain first-hand accounts from victims and witnesses of human rights violations by all means possible,” she said.