Given the critical flaws in the agreement, Myanmar and Bangladesh should invite UNHCR to join in the drafting of a new tripartite agreement, Human Rights Watch said. An agreement by Bangladesh and Myanmar to begin returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar by January 23, 2018 should be shelved. Human Rights Watch has said in a letter to the two governments. International donors should insist that Myanmar and Bangladesh invite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to join in drafting a new tripartite agreement that ensures adherence to international standards.
Since late August 2017, more than 645,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s security forces and sought asylum in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 200 of the refugees. Many said that they wish to eventually return home, but that they do not believe it is safe to return to Myanmar for the foreseeable future and until their security, land, and livelihoods can be ensured.
“Myanmar has yet to end its military abuses against the Rohingya, let alone create conditions that would allow them to return home safely,” refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, Bill Frelick said. “This agreement looks more like a public relations effort by Myanmar to quickly close this ugly chapter than a serious effort to restore the rights of Rohingya and allow them to voluntarily return in safety and dignity.”
Voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity as required by international law will not be feasible until the Myanmar government demonstrates its willingness and ability to ensure full respect for returnees’ human rights, equal access to nationality, and security, Human Rights Watch said.
The agreement expresses Myanmar’s commitment to “take necessary measures to halt the outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh” – which raises grave concerns since everyone has a right to flee persecution in their own country.
Several officials in Myanmar have spoken about putting Rohingya in “camps.” This would be an unacceptable approach to their return as camps set up after previous anti-Rohingya violence have led to de facto detention and segregation.
While the agreement says that Bangladesh will immediately seek assistance from UNHCR to carry out safe and voluntary returns, Myanmar agrees only “that the services of the UNHCR could be drawn upon as needed and at the appropriate time.”
“After the widespread atrocities, safe and voluntary return of Rohingya will require international monitors on the ground in Myanmar,” Frelick said. “This means a central role for the UNHCR, the only UN agency with a statutory mandate to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees.”
This should include some existing provisions, such as encouraging refugees “to return voluntarily and safely to their own households and original places of residence or to a safe and secure place nearest to it or their choice.” The current agreement also commits Myanmar “to see that the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long time.”
“With the active participation of UNHCR, Myanmar and Bangladesh should go back to the drawing board with a commitment to consult fully with both refugees and affected communities to reach an agreement that will genuinely allow the refugees’ safe, dignified, and sustainable return,” Frelick said.