YANGON (Reuters) - Safety and “identity” need to be in place for Rohingya Muslim refugees who return to Myanmar, the head of the United Nations in the country said on Wednesday, as Myanmar and U.N. agencies signed an outline deal on returns.
The signing of a memorandum of understanding between the government and U.N. development and refugee agencies - the UNDP and the UNHCR - marks a warming of ties which hit a low point last year after the government suggested some agencies provided food to Rohingya militants.
The head of the United Nations in Myanmar, Knut Ostby, said he hoped U.N. staff would be able to travel to the violence-ravaged north of Rakhine State “almost immediately” to assess the situation and - over time - to help the refugees in Bangladesh make an informed decision about potential returns.
Since August, about 700,000 Rohingya have fled an army crackdown in Myanmar, many reporting killings, rape and arson on a large scale. The United Nations has called the campaign a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing” - a charge Myanmar denies.
U.N. officials have said for months the conditions in Myanmar were “not conducive” to returns which would be safe, voluntary and dignified and view Wednesday’s deal as a first step toward meeting those objectives.
“There are two really crucial things that need to be in place - one is to have an identity for the people who come back, so that they can live as normal members of society both in terms of an identity and in terms of being able to have the freedom of movement,” Ostby told Reuters by phone.
“And the other issue is that they need to be able to live in safety. They should not have to risk further violence,” said Ostby, who serves as the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.
Access to basic services, livelihoods and infrastructure would also have to be addressed, he said.
Rohingya are widely called “Bengali” in Buddhist-majority Myanmar - which they see as a derogatory term implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship despite many tracing their roots in the country back generations.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has pressed the Rohingya to accept National Verification Cards - documents that are a part of government effort to register Rohingya, but which falls short of offering them citizenship.
Rohingya community leaders have widely rejected the card, saying it treats life-long residents like new immigrants.
Ostby, asked how the Wednesday agreement might help to resolve the issue of citizenship, said: “We have been talking for a long time about making a clear and predictable path to citizenship for those who are eligible.”
But the granting of citizenship was the government’s prerogative, he said.
“What we can do is to facilitate and we call for commitment to international principles,” said Ostby in his first detailed remarks on the text of the agreement, which has not been made public.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete the voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years but differences between them persist, impeding implementation of the plan.
The Myanmar government said in a statement after the signing it hoped the repatriation process would “hasten” with U.N. involvement.
It said the UNHCR would help “in the implementation of the voluntary repatriation and the reintegration of all those who return”, while the UNDP would focus on preparing “conditions for recovery and resilience-based development”.
Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Robert Birsel