YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar is not ready for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, said the most senior United Nations official to visit the country this year, after Myanmar was accused of instigating ethnic cleansing and driving nearly 700,000 Muslims to Bangladesh.
“From what I’ve seen and heard from people – no access to health services, concerns about protection, continued displacements – conditions are not conducive to return,” Ursula Mueller, UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said after a six-day visit to Myanmar.
A Myanmar government spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Ms Mueller’s remarks.
The Myanmar government has previously pledged to do its best to make sure repatriation under an agreement signed with Bangladesh in November would be “fair, dignified and safe”.
Myanmar has so far verified several hundred Rohingya Muslim refugees for possible repatriation. The group would be the first batch of refugees and could come back to Myanmar “when it was convenient for them,” a Myanmar official said last month.
Ms Mueller was granted rare access in Myanmar, allowed to visit the most affected areas in Rakhine state, and met army-controlled ministers of defense and border affairs, as well as de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials.
The exodus of Rohingya Muslims followed an August 25 crackdown by the military in the northwestern Rakhine state. Rohingya refugees reported killings, burnings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces.
Myanmar says its forces have been engaged in a legitimate campaign against Muslim “terrorists”.
Bangladesh officials have previously expressed doubts about Myanmar’s willingness to take back Rohingya refugees.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete a voluntary repatriation of the refugees in two years. Myanmar set up two reception centers and what it says is a temporary camp near the border in Rakhine to receive the first arrivals.
Many in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The UN has described Myanmar’s counteroffensive as ethnic cleansing, which Myanmar denies.