BANGKOK Around 25,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group have left camps for displaced people in western Myanmar and returned to the communities they fled during sectarian violence in 2012, the United Nations said on Monday.
The number of people still in camps has fallen to around 120,000 from 145,000 in Rakhine State, Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, told Reuters.
The move will bolster optimism among ethnic communities in Myanmar that their situation may improve under the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won a landslide electoral win in November and is forming a government to take power on April 1.
The majority of Rohingya who have left the camps have rebuilt houses in their place of origin, Tan said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters. The move out of the camps started in March 2015 in a process led by the Myanmar government, she added.
"These movements are a positive step toward ending displacement, cutting humanitarian dependency as well as restoring a degree of normality and dignity to people's lives," she said.
The Rohingya still faced challenges due to lack of citizenship and related restrictions, she said.
The number of camps for displaced people has fallen to 40, down from 67, she added.
Persecution and poverty led thousands more Rohingya to flee Myanmar in the wake of the violence between Buddhists and Muslims there four years ago. Many of them were smuggled or trafficked to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond.
The number of migrants has fallen sharply this year from previous years, the U.N. said.
"It is striking, there are many less people coming than last year," Volker Turk, assistant high commissioner for protection at the UNHCR, told Reuters on Monday after an event on refugees in Bangkok.
"It's a combination of factors. As well as the new government, there are stronger activities against smuggling and trafficking. And the discovery of the mass graves last year also shocked people."
Thai police launched a campaign in May 2015 following the discovery of 30 bodies in graves near a human-trafficking camp close to the Malaysian border. The crackdown led criminals to abandon ships at sea with thousands of migrants aboard.
Mass graves of suspected human-trafficking victims were also found on the Malaysian side of the border.
Thai and Bangladeshi crackdowns on human smugglers disrupted the networks that brought migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh by sea to Thailand and Malaysia.
Suu Kyi and the NLD have been criticized for saying little about how they will address the situation in Rakhine, but the electoral win sparked cautious optimism in the Rohingya community.
The flow of migrants and refugees to Thailand from areas of conflict in other parts of Myanmar has also decreased as people hope for improvements under the NLD government, said the European Union's ambassador to Thailand, Jesus Sanz.
"The positive change in Myanmar is the main cause for the reduction in numbers," Sanz told Reuters. "It remains to be seen how quickly the government of Myanmar will be able to stabilize the situation there and give real opportunities to these people."
The EU helps finance camps in Thailand near the border with Myanmar that hold more than 100,000 refugees.
The United Nations hoped political change in Myanmar would allow those refugees, some of whom have lived in Thailand for decades, to go home.
"I hope that voluntary repatriation will be a possibility in a year or two," Volker said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Catherine Evans)