KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh — UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday called for more international pressure on Myanmar to create conditions safe for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled the country since a military crackdown last August.
The United Nations and Myanmar struck an agreement in May that the UN hopes will eventually allow thousands of Rohingya to return safely and by choice.
“This memorandum of understanding is the first step on the way of progressive recognition of the rights of the people,” Guterres said, speaking inside a bamboo shelter at a refugee camp on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast.
“This is the kind of concession that was possible to obtain at the present moment from Myanmar … Let’s test the sincerity of this concession and then let’s move on in relation to the full rights of the people.”
No one was available from the Myanmar government to comment on Guterres’ statement on Monday.
The visit by Guterres came 10 months after attacks by Muslim militants in Myanmar triggered a military offensive that has forced more than 700,000 Rohingya – a mostly Muslim ethnic minority – to escape to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN has described the crackdown as ethnic cleansing, an allegation Myanmar denies.
The MOU, details of which were reported by Reuters last week, does not offer explicit guarantees of citizenship or freedom of movement – which have been among the key demands of many Rohingya, a long-persecuted group that Myanmar doesn’t consider citizens.
Along a rain-soaked, muddy road outside the shelter where Guterres spoke to the press along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, a group of refugees stood holding cloth banners listing their demands: “Include Rohingya in agreements about Rohingya” and “Dignified repatriation must include full citizenship right as Rohingya ethnic group.”
Some Rohingya leaders have said they wouldn’t accept the deal in its current form.
Guterres said the agreement was the UN’s effort to try to force the Myanmar government “to pave the way for potential future returns.”
“So it is like that it must be considered. Not as a final agreement on returns,” he said. “We know that Myanmar will probably not accept everything at the same time.”
He and Kim also stressed that while safe and voluntary returns of the Rohingya to Myanmar was the first priority, the immediate need was to support Bangladesh in dealing with the humanitarian disaster.
Their visit follows the World Bank’s announcement last week that it would provide $480 million to Bangladesh to help support the refugees, living in congested bamboo-and-plastic shelters built on sandy hills and at risk of deadly monsoon floods and landslides this month.
Kim said on Monday the World Bank would look for ways to bring more development resources to Bangladesh – among the world’s poorest nations – “because of the contribution they’ve made to the world in hosting the Rohingya.”
Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh in recent months have reported mass killings, arson and rapes by Myanmar security forces. Guterres and Kim met some of those victims at the camps, whose conditions they said were some of the worst they had ever seen.
“It is probably one of the most tragic stories in relation to the systematic violation of human rights,” Guterres said. “We need to push and will be pushing in the right direction.”