YANGON (Reuters) – Safety and “identity” need to be in place for Rohingya Muslim refugees who return to Myanmar, the head of the United Nations in the country said on Wednesday, as Myanmar and UN agencies signed an outline deal on returns.
The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the government and UN development and refugee agencies – the UNDP and the UNHCR – marks a warming of ties which hit a low point last year after the government suggested some agencies provided food to Rohingya militants.
The head of the UN in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, said he hoped UN staff would be able to travel to the violence-ravaged north of Rakhine State “almost immediately” to assess the situation and – over time – to help the refugees in Bangladesh make an informed decision about potential returns.
Since August, about 700,000 Rohingya fled an army crackdown in Myanmar, many reporting killings, rape and arson on a large scale. The UN called the campaign a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing” – a charge Myanmar denies.
UN officials have said for months the conditions in Myanmar were “not conducive” to returns which would be safe, voluntary and dignified and view Wednesday’s deal as a first step towards meeting those objectives.
“There are two really crucial things that need to be in place – one is to have an identity for the people who come back, so that they can live as normal members of society both in terms of an identity and in terms of being able to have the freedom of movement,” Ostby told Reuters by phone.
“And the other issue is that they need to be able to live in safety. They should not have to risk further violence,” said Ostby, who serves as the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.