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Conditions Not Yet in Place for Safe Rohingya Returns: UNHCR

While Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said repatriation of the largely stateless Muslim minority would be based on residency and would be "safe and voluntary", there were concerns that the country's autonomous military could prove obstructive.

Reuters

Updated:November 24, 2017, 4:33 PM IST
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Conditions Not Yet in Place for Safe Rohingya Returns: UNHCR
Newly arrived Rohingya refugees sit on a truck to take them to get registered after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border at a relief centre in the Teknaf area, Bangladesh, November 23, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Susana Vera)
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Geneva: Conditions in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state "are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns" of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence to Bangladesh since late August, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.

UNHCR said it had still not seen a repatriation agreement signed by the two countries on Thursday, but stressed that any returns by the "traumatised" group must be safe and voluntary. Spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing: "It is important that international standards apply, and we are ready to help."

Human rights groups called on Friday for international agencies to be allowed to monitor the planned repatriation of hundreds of thousands Rohingya Muslim from Bangladesh to the homes they fled in Myanmar during the past three months.

The two governments signed a pact on Thursday settling terms for the repatriation process. They aim to start the return of Rohingya in two months in order to reduce pressures in the sprawling refugee camps that have mushroomed in the Cox's Bazar region of Bangladesh.

"The idea that Burma will now welcome them back to their smoldering villages with open arms is laughable," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, using the former name for Myanmar.

"Instead of signing on to a public relations stunt, the international community should make it clear that there can be no returns without international monitors to ensure security, an end to the idea of putting returnees in camps, the return of land and the rebuilding of destroyed homes and villages."

More than 600,000 Rohingya sought sanctuary in Bangladesh after Myanmar's military launched a brutal counter insurgency in their villages across northern parts of Rakhine State following attacks by Rohingya militants on an army base and police posts on August 25.

The United Nations and United States have described the military's actions as "ethnic cleansing", and rights groups have accused security forces of atrocities, including mass rape, arson and killings.

While Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said repatriation of the largely stateless Muslim minority would be based on residency and would be "safe and voluntary", there were concerns that the country's autonomous military could prove obstructive.

The memorandum of understanding signed by Myanmar and Bangladesh on Thursday said a joint working group would be set up within three weeks to prepare the way for the Rohingya's return.

But it gave scant details about the criteria of return and of what role, if any, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, could play

"It is standard practice in voluntary repatriation operations that UNHCR would be involved to ensure international standards are met for any type of return agreement," said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic. "We haven't seen the paper."

Right watchers said other important points that were not addressed in the statements released separately by the two governments included the protection of Rohingya against further violence, a path to resolving their legal status and whether they would be allowed to return to their own homes.

Suu Kyi's spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Friday, and had declined to comment on these concerns when contacted by Reuters late on Thursday.

Charmain Mohamed, Amnesty International's director for refugee and migrant rights, said the UN and international community "have been completely sidelined" and the talk of return is "premature" while the flow of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh continues.
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