World News

U.N. Reaches Initial Deal on Rohingya

Posted May 31, 2018 7:21 p.m. EDT

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s government announced Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the United Nations that would be a first step toward the possible return of Rohingya Muslims to the country.

Beginning in August, about 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine state in far western Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh in the most urgent exodus of humanity in a generation. The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, were escaping a military campaign of slaughter, rape and the burning of their villages that some U.N. officials have said may amount to genocide.

While an agreement with the United Nations is a precondition for any meaningful repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar, even the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees cautioned in a statement on Thursday that “conditions are not conducive for voluntary return yet.”

Few details were available on what the initial memorandum of understanding entailed. Myanmar said U.N. agencies would “cooperate with the government for the repatriation of the displaced persons who have been duly verified so that they can return voluntarily in safety and dignity.”

Knut Ostby, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said: “The hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Myanmar are living in unsustainable conditions. We must do our best to create conditions in Rakhine so that they can return home.” He called the agreement “the first step in doing that, in helping people start to rebuild their lives.”

So far, the United Nations has not had free access to the center of violence in northern Rakhine state. Bilateral efforts by Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya have resulted in a token number of returns.

Although the Rohingya consider themselves to be just one of many ethnic minorities living in Myanmar, most have been stripped of their citizenship and are stateless. Myanmar’s government has dismissed widespread and consistent accounts of horrific violence committed by its military and civilian gangs against the Rohingya.

On Thursday, the president’s office in Myanmar said it would establish an independent commission of inquiry into human rights violations that occurred in the wake of attacks by Rohingya militants last August. Those attacks on police and army posts catalyzed the military’s violence toward Rohingya civilians. Yet Myanmar’s government has formed half a dozen such commissions in recent months. None has resulted in any meaningful soul-searching by the military for actions that the United States has deemed ethnic cleansing. Instead, Myanmar officials have focused overwhelmingly on the attacks by the Rohingya militants.

Most people sheltering in Bangladesh have little wish to return now to Rakhine. A survey released on May 23 by the Xchange Foundation, which investigates and documents migration, found that among more than 1,700 Rohingya interviewed in camps in Bangladesh, 97.5 percent wished to eventually go home to Myanmar. But nearly all of them said they would go back only if they were given Myanmar citizenship, as well as freedom of movement and religion. Myanmar’s government has given little indication that it would be willing to accede to those demands.

In recent years, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been increasingly persecuted, unable to travel freely, attend college or worship as they wish. Since 2012, about 120,000 have been interned in camps in central Rakhine.

Conditions in the Rohingya settlements in Bangladesh, which include the world’s largest refugee camp, are dire, and the monsoon rains that are descending make life even more miserable. About 200,000 Rohingya live in flimsy shelters that are vulnerable to landslides and flooding, according to the United Nations.

On Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency cast skepticism on a Bangladeshi government plan to move Rohingya refugees from the camps in southeastern Bangladesh to a giant sandbar in the Bay of Bengal.

“I don’t really think it’s realistic to expect that the island will be a solution,” George Okoth-Obbo, the agency’s assistant high commissioner for operations, said at a news conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. Critics of the plan worry that every cyclone that strikes Bangladesh — and there are many — could endanger the lives of any Rohingya forced to live on the island, which is currently uninhabited.