‘Safe, Dignified and Sustainable Return’ of Refugees Not Yet Possible: UNHCR

By Moe Myint 5 October 2018

YANGON–Despite government representatives citing Myanmar’s readiness to take back Rohingya refugees at the recent UN General Assembly in New York, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ spokesman Andrej Mahecic mentioned in a statement on Friday that current conditions in northern Rakhine State’s strife-torn Maungdaw District are “not conducive for safe, dignified and sustainable return” of Rohingya refugees currently in neighboring Bangladesh.

This UN agency’s statement came after an informal discussion between Myanmar and Bangladesh facilitated by the Chinese foreign affairs minister Wang Yi on the sideline of the General Assembly. The meeting focused on creating a roadmap and timetable for the repatriation of the Rohingya people and implementing the repatriation of the first batch of refugees as soon as possible. After the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—formerly known as Al-Yaqin (Faith Movement)—sabotaged several dozen government border outposts, Myanmar Army’s counter-operations caused nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.

The UN Fact-Finding Mission labeled the actions of the military during Rohingya crisis as having “genocidal intent” and called for the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court for his role in the handling of the Rohingya crisis. The EU recently imposed targeted sanctions against a number of Tatmadaw generals and is currently considering imposing trade sanctions on Myanmar over the crisis. Social welfare minister U Win Myat Aye, a key person in de-facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, participated the UN General Assembly in New York but could not be reached for comment for this article on Friday.

The UNHCR issued two statements today relating to the recent deportation of seven Rohingya from India and explaining its very first on-ground assessments which were completed a few weeks ago. The UN refugee agency’s officials stated that they noted the efforts of authorities to facilitate initial assessment although agencies were limited in scope and in the locations visited. According to the official, the team has learned the serious effects of the communities, including on the local economy and diminishing livelihoods, which significantly increases the vulnerability of the community.

In Maungdaw post-conflict, the situation remains difficult with restrictions to travel, access to livelihoods and basic services. Residents from different communities that spoke with the UN assessment team expressed that sometimes they felt restricted because of their safety concerns and fears of neighboring communities. Particularly, Muslim communities are not allowed to move freely there. The statement also mentioned that mistrust between different groups also impacts access to education, health and other basic services.

“It also limits interactions between communities, hindering prospects for confidence-building and social cohesion,” Andrej Mahecic was quoted in the statement.

Residents from Muslim, Arakanese and non-Muslim groups, when asked by the assessment team, expressed their hope for peace in Rakhine and willingness to incrementally restore relations. The statement says that confidence-building and improving conditions will be essential to bring people together, to alleviate poverty, to oversee health and education disparities alongside making tangible progress to address root causes. The agency hopes that their assessments also help to identify community initiatives which could assist government efforts to improve the lives of conflict suffered communities, trust-building and social cohesion.

The refugee agency spokesperson added that his agency looks to have effective access and rapid expansions of assessments to all areas in Rakhine covered by the tri-parties Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). As of this morning, UNHCR and UNDP teams have been traveling in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung for their second phase of assessments after gaining travel permissions from local authorities.

Although the UN agencies partly unveiled their firsthand accounts in the statement, it did not explain the condition of physical arrangements made by the government in Maungdaw for the implementation of “model villages for returnees” or village plans for a long-term solution for the returnees. It’s unclear whether the authorities and UN agencies had talks on these issues.

Maungdaw District administrative official U Ye Htoo told The Irrawaddy early this week that they are working on two projects: building modest houses for the refugees and a new model village plan. The structures are being built in 19 locations for Rohingya and some non-Muslim groups and the government has 12 prioritized sites for new model villages with each village expected to include a market, school, public park and clinic.