The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) have this week signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Myanmar Government detailing plans for the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

The tripartite agreement, signed in Nay Pyi Taw on Wednesday 6 June, outlines the conditions under which voluntary returns of Rohingya can take place, and where, if they choose, they may make the journey from refugee camps in Bangladesh back to their homes in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar.

The MoU provides a framework for the repatriation programme, outlining the role of UNHCR and UNDP within the process. The agreement also grants the two UN bodies effective access to Rakhine State for the first time since last August, when violence flared up and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee. The UN agencies will be able to visit areas in the region to determine whether they meet the criteria for safe returns, and will set up repatriation centres and protection programmes.

Over 700,000 people have fled Rakhine State across the border to Bangladesh since last summer, in the wake of a military crackdown against the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. In November of last year, Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement to facilitate returns, however the deal was widely criticised by the international community over concerns over refugees’ safety and the lack of UN involvement. As of February this year, only 8032 people had signed up to take part in the returns process.

The newly signed MoU is intended to facilitate last year’s bilateral returns agreement, under the guidance and with the support of the UN agencies.

In a press release, the UN stated that the MoU is “a first and necessary step to establish a framework for cooperation between the UN and the Government aimed at creating conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and for helping to create improved and resilient livelihoods for all communities living in Rakhine State.”

The UN stresses, however, that the voluntary returns can only occur once the Myanmar Government has met two conditions: firstly, grant citizenship to the currently stateless Rohingya people, and secondly provide an assurance that they would be safe from violence. Knut Ostby, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, commented, “There is a lot of work to be done. This task should not be underestimated. We are talking about approximately 700,000 people…the conditions have to be right for them to return…in terms of their identity, in society, their safety and also in terms of services, livelihoods, a place to live, and infrastructure.”

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Photo: (CC) CAFOD Photo Library, September 2017


This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.