UN officials have condemned a deal struck between Myanmar and Bangladesh to start repatriating Rohingya refugees, with the UN refugee agency confirming it has not been consulted about the plan.
Government officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar announced this week they had struck a “very concrete” repatriation deal for the return of the 720,000 Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal military crackdown in August last year, which would begin by “mid-November.”
Burmese officials on Wednesday said they had verified 5,000 Rohingya refugees so far, with the “first batch” of 2,000 to be repatriated in the next month.
However, Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the deal had taken the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by surprise.
“To be clear UNHCR, which is in lead on the issues of refugees, was not consulted on this matter,” said Dujarric at the daily press briefing given by the secretary-general’s office.
Chris Melzer, the UNHCR’s senior external officer based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, reiterated this, saying: “UNHCR was not a party to that agreement.
“We would advise against imposing any timetable or target figures for repatriation in respect of the voluntary nature and sustainability of return,” Melzer said. “It is unclear if refugees know their names are on this list that has been cleared by Myanmar. They need to be informed. They also need to be consulted if they are willing to return... It is critical that returns are not rushed or premature.”
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been living in cramped refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar for more than a year after fleeing rape, murder and arson in Rakhine state at the hands of the Burmese military.
The Burmese government signed an agreement with the UNHCR in June that they would work with the UN to create “safe and dignified” conditions for the return of the Rohingya to Rakhine, including guaranteeing security, freedom of movement and pathway to citizenship.
None of these assurances have been made by the Burmese government so far and the UNHCR has only been given restricted access to Rakhine state.
“For UNHCR, the conditions in Rakhine state are not yet conducive for a return to Myanmar, and at the same time, we’re seeing Rohingya refugees continue to arrive from Rakhine state into [Bangladesh], which should give you an indication of the situation on the ground,” Dujarric said.
Bangladesh has given Myanmar a list of 24,342 refugees whom they have cleared for repatriation, but details of the logistics and precise date of the repatriation are unclear.
Safiullah, who like many other Rohingya uses one name, was among refugees who met the Burmese members of the Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group at Kutupalong refugee camp on Wednesday.
“The Burmese officials said to us that around 4,600 Rohingya refugees would be taken to Myanmar,” Safiullah said. “The first bunch, around 2,300, would be allowed to return now. The remaining half would return at a later stage, they told me. The returnees have to spend three days in a transit camp inside Rakhine before they are taken to another camp which will be their new home.”
He had asked whether the Rohingya would be able to return to their own villages, but “the Burmese officials did not give me an answer.”
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