By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER
YANGON — Myanmar has agreed to allow the United Nations “effective” access to northern Rakhine State, as part of a memorandum of understanding regarding the repatriation of mainly Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, a UN official told Frontier on Wednesday.
“What has been agreed in the MoU is to provide effective access to Rakhine,” Mr Giuseppe De Vincentiis, UNHCR Myanmar Country Representative, told Frontier by telephone on Wednesday. “We feel that the government has made a very strong commitment on a number of points.”
The UN refugee agency and the UN Development Programme signed the tripartite agreement with the Myanmar government in Nay Pyi Taw today.
“This 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 UNHCR said in a statement.
An estimated 700,000 people – overwhelmingly Rohingya – have fled northern Rakhine State for Bangladesh since August last year, amid a brutal military crackdown in response to attacks by fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Myanmar has come under considerable international criticism for its handling of the crisis, but has consistently maintained that it is ready to accept returnees, despite many in the international community warning that the situation is not favourable for returns.
Many Rohingya living in the camps in Bangladesh have said they will only return if their safety can be guaranteed, and if they can be provided with citizenship.
De Vincentiis told Frontier that the UN still does not consider the situation on the ground in Rakhine State conducive to the return of refugees, but called the MoU an “important and necessary” step for cooperation between Myanmar and the UN.
“The core of the MoU is that we will work to establish a cooperation framework to help establish conditions that are conducive to returns,” he said, adding that a number of questions remain about how the agreement would be implemented on the ground.
In January, Myanmar and Bangladesh reached an agreement to begin the repatriation of refugees, but that deal did not include UN agencies. At the time, UNHCR told Frontier that the agency was ready to “play a constructive role” in implementing an agreement that is in line with international standards.
De Vincentiis said this MoU was the result of an “in-depth consultation” with the government that would establish “a framework that is agreeable to all parties”.
In a statement, the United States Embassy in Myanmar said it welcomed the MoU.
“We hope implementation of the MOU will help create the conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of those displaced to their places of origin,” it said.