Burma, UN reach agreement for safe return of Rohingya refugees
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Burma, UN reach agreement for safe return of Rohingya refugees

THE United Nations and Burma’s (Myanmar) government announced an agreement on Thursday for the safe return of Rohingya refugees who have fled violence in Rakhine state.

Almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh since a military crackdown began in August 2017. There are now estimated to be almost a million residing in squalid refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar region.

“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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.

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Burma’s government said in a brief statement late on Thursday the MoU would be signed “soon” and UN agencies would “support access to livelihoods through the design and implementation of community-based interventions.”

Burma 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.

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An aerial view shows burned down villages once inhabited by the Rohingya seen from the Myanmar military helicopters that carried the U.N. envoys to northern Rakhine state, Myanmar, May 1, 2018. Source: Reuters/ Michelle Nichols

As monsoon season approaches, there is a pressing need to find a solution to the temporary housing situation but many Rohingya have expressed fear at returning to Buddhist majority to Burma where they have faced persecution and abuses at the hands of the military.

A recent study from Xchange.org found that while 99.5 percent of Rohingya refugees wanted to return to Burma, only 0.3 percent would go back in the current conditions. Witnesses reported killings, rape and arson on a large scale, executed by planned military operations.

In a separate statement on Thursday, Burma’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.

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The commission will be assisted by international experts, the statement said without elaborating.

The Security Council asked Burma 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”.

Burma has for years denied Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and access to basic services such as healthcare. Many in Burma regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from mostly Muslim Bangladesh.

Additional reporting by Reuters.