GENEVA/YANGON (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Thursday it had struck an outline deal with Myanmar aimed at eventually allowing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims sheltering in Bangladesh to return safely and by choice.
Since August 2017, about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, many reporting killings, rape and arson on a large scale, U.N. and other aid organizations have said.
“Since the conditions are not conducive for voluntary return yet, the MoU (memorandum of understanding) is the first and necessary step to support the government’s efforts to change that situation,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.
Myanmar’s government said in a brief statement late on Thursday the MoU would be signed “soon” and U.N. agencies would “support access to livelihoods through the design and implementation of community-based interventions”.
Myanmar civilian government spokesman Zaw Htay said he had nothing to add to the statement.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete the voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years but differences between the two sides persist, impeding implementation of the plan.
In a separate statement on Thursday, Myanmar’s government said it would set up an independent commission to investigate “the violation of human rights and related issues” in Rakhine State following the army operation there in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts.
The commission will be assisted by international experts, the statement said without elaborating.
In the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, senior UNHCR official George William Okoth-Obbo told reporters after a five-day visit to Rohingya refugee camps along the border that conditions in Myanmar did not yet allow a “safe and sustainable return”.
Okoth-Obbo said an immediate challenge for humanitarian agencies was to relocate 200,000 Rohingya refugees threatened by seasonal monsoon flooding and landslides to a safer place.
The United Nations and aid agencies have described the crackdown on the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, an accusation Myanmar rejects.
The Security Council asked Myanmar in November to ensure no “further excessive use of military force” and to allow “freedom of movement, equal access to basic services, and equal access to full citizenship for all”.
Myanmar has for years denied Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare. Many in Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from mostly Muslim Bangladesh.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Shoon Naing and Yimou Lee in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Mark Heinrich