Yangon, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar and the United Nations agreed to take steps to create conditions for the safe return of about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled military-led violence into Bangladesh.
The agreement announced by the government and two U.N. agencies on Thursday calls for a framework of cooperation that will lead to the “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of Rohingya refugees “to their places of origin or of their choosing.”
The U.N. refugee agency said that the conditions for voluntary return are not conducive yet. The memorandum of understanding — which is expected to be signed next week — “is the first and necessary step to support the government’s efforts to change that situation and is also intended to support recovery and resilience-based development for the benefit of all communities living in Rakhine state,” UNHCR said in a statement.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to begin repatriating the Rohingya, but the refugees expressed concern that they would be forced to return and would face unsafe conditions in Myanmar if the process is not monitored by international aid groups.
The government said in a statement that it initialed the agreement with the U.N. Development Program and UNHCR for their assistance so that verified displaced people “can return voluntarily in safety and dignity.”
The U.N. said the agreement also provides for the two agencies to be given access to western Rakhine state, where most of the violence against the Rohingya has occurred since August.
It said that will allow the refugee agency to assess the situation, carry out protection activities, and provide information to refugees about conditions in their home areas so that they can better decide whether they want to return.
Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of Rohingya homes. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.” The government has denied the accusations, instead blaming the violence on Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts that triggered the reprisals and the latest exodus of the population that has long been denied citizenship and other basic rights.
The government of predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar says Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though some have lived in the country for generations.
Myanmar has said so far it will only allow refugees with identity documents — which most Rohingya lack — to return.