July 1, 2018 / 5:36 PM / 4 months ago

Red Cross chief says Myanmar not ready for Rohingya returns

CHAKMARKUL REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Conditions in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state are not ready yet for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled a military crackdown, the head of the International Committee of Red Cross said on Sunday after visit to the region.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), interacts with a Rohingya woman during his visit to a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Myanmar has said it is ready to take back the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Bangladesh since last August, and has set up two reception centers and what it says is a temporary camp near the border in Rakhine to receive the first arrivals.

But Red Cross President Peter Maurer said he did not believe returns should start any time soon based on what he saw during his visit.

“I think there is still a lot of work to do till large scale repatriation is a realistic possibility,” Maurer said.

“Much more has to happen in terms of reception structure, preparations, also preparation of the communities to receive again those who came (to Bangladesh) from Myanmar.”

Maurer comments, made at the refugee camps on Bangladesh’s southeastern coast, followed his visit to Myanmar, where he said he saw abandoned villages and destroyed houses.

The Myanmar government spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Maurer’s remarks.

The exodus of Rohingya came after militant attacks on Myanmar security posts triggered a military offensive that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar has denied the allegations and stated it waged a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.

Red Cross has become the main provider of humanitarian aid to Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state since the United Nations had to suspend its operations there last September, following government accusations that its agency had supported Rohingya insurgents.

Rohingya who have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar have reported mass killings, arson and rape by security forces there. The country does not recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group and denies them citizenship.

The United Nations struck an outline deal with Myanmar at the end of May aimed at eventually allowing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims sheltering in Bangladesh to return safely and by choice.

But Rohingya will have no explicit guarantees of citizenship or freedom of movement in Myanmar, according to details of the agreement Reuters reported on Friday.

Many Rohingya living at the refugee camps in Bangladesh have said they will not return until Myanmar recognizes them as citizens and their safety is guaranteed.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay and Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye did not answer multiple phone calls seeking comment about the agreement. The director of the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population said he was not authorized to comment and directed inquiries to the permanent secretary, who did not answer the phone.

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Maurer said he said he met senior government officials in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw to seek approvals to scale up the Red Cross operations in Rakhine state.

He said he was satisfied with the cooperation from the security forces as well as the government to reach people in need at the present moment.

The office of Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said the meetings were on “humanitarian assistance and helping the affected communities to create independent sources of income”.

Editing by Alison Williams and Mike Collett-White

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