Deal to return Rohingyas revealed
Leaked documents have revealed a deal between the Myanmar government and the United Nations that would see Rohingya Muslim refugees who have sought safety in Bangladesh return home.
The confidential memorandum of understanding between Myanmar and two UN agencies says Rohingya refugees who voluntarily return to the country from neighbouring Bangladesh would be sent to their original places of residence or to a secure place of their choice nearest to those locations.
They will also have the same freedom of movement as other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, according to the document obtained by Radio Free Asia’s (RFA) Myanmar Service.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population signed the MoU with the United Nations development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies on June 6, but the document and its terms have not been issued publicly.
The document obtained by RFA outlines the general principles and the scope of the parties’ cooperation in returning and reintegrating some of the almost one million Rohingya refugees who fled northern Rakhine state after two brutal crackdowns by security forces in October 2016 and August 2017, which included killings, rape, and arson.
The first campaign drove roughly 90,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, while the second forced more than 700,000 to flee.
The refugees have been living in sprawling makeshift camps in south-eastern Bangladesh with others who escaped from previous bouts of violence in Rakhine.
“Those who have left Myanmar are to return voluntarily and safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it of their choice based on their well-informed decision,” the MoU is reported to say.
“The returnees will enjoy the same freedom of movement as all other Myanmar nationals in Rakhine state, in conformity with existing laws and regulations, and in conformity with the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission,” the document says according to RFA reports.
After the residency of returning refugees has been verified, Myanmar’s labour ministry will issue identification documents to the returnees and “ensure a clear and voluntary pathway to citizenship to those eligible,” the MoU says.
Because Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, it has systematically discriminated against them, denying them citizenship — though some have lived in the country for generations — freedom of movement, and access to educations, jobs, and health care.
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, headed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the multiethnic state, although it did not evaluate possible human rights violations by security forces.
Its final report issued in August 2017 called for the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine that house Rohingya displaced by communal violence in 2012, reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law which prevents the minority group from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on the Rohingya to preclude further violence in the region.
The MoU reportedly does not refer to the Rohingya by name but does say that the government will work for a “durable and comprehensive solution to the displacement of persons in and from Rakhine state”.
And it reveals that the parties to the agreement will conduct assessments, planning, coordination, fundraising, and implementation activities with regard to relevant humanitarian and development actions.
Under the deal, the UNHCR will provide assistance with the voluntary repatriation and resettlement program through protection activities, community consultations, and site visits, and support programs that benefit all communities in potential return areas.
The UNDP is tasked with coordinating and providing support to assessments related to building resiliency in communities in Rakhine, including sustainable livelihoods, conflict sensitivity, and local institutional capacity building at selected project sites, and with undertaking the planning process for the recovery and development that will benefit returnees.
Activists and rights groups have criticized the parties to the MoU for not publicly releasing the terms of the agreement.
The MoU is in effect for 12 months from the date of its signing. The parties must decide whether to agree to an extension of the MoU at least 90 days before its expiration date on July 5, 2019.
The UNHCR also signed a separate MoU with Bangladesh in April regarding the return of the Rohingya refugees.
The UN, rights groups, and other members of the international community have said that the August 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Rights groups say the repatriation plan has failed to overcome the group’s fears of returning to places where many were killed and their villages burned.
Radio Free Asia is a private, non-profit international broadcaster based in the US.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist