Bangladesh and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) signed a memorandum of understanding Friday that establishes a framework of bilateral cooperation for the voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, United Nations officials said.
The memorandum (MoU), signed in Geneva by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Md. Shahidul Haque, could affect about 700,000 Rohingya who fled a violent crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state in August 2017.
UNHCR's MoU with Bangladesh "reaffirms the general principles of voluntary returns in safety and dignity," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. agency based at its headquarters in Geneva, told BenarNews.
The memorandum outlines broadly the roles for both the government of Bangladesh and UNHCR in any future return movements - in informing refugees about conditions in the return areas, data sharing, verification of voluntariness and assistance in returns, he said in an email.
The MoU provides a framework of cooperation between the agency and Bangladesh, he added, on "the safe, voluntary and dignified returns of refugees in line with international standards, if and when the conditions are right and refugees decide they want to return."
But UNHCR considers that conditions in Myanmar "are not yet conducive for returns to be safe, dignified, and sustainable," Mahecic said.
In the absence of a three-way MoU between the U.N. agency and Bangladesh and Myanmar on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, UNHCR was seeking a similar bilateral understanding with Naypyidaw, it said in a news release about the signing of the memorandum with Bangladesh.
"The responsibility for creating such conditions remains with the Myanmar authorities, and these must go beyond the preparation of physical infrastructure to facilitate logistical arrangements," UNHCR said while calling on Myanmar authorities to allow "full and unhindered" access to Rakhine.
Such access was necessary to assess the situation there and monitor any future return of Rohingya from refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, the agency said.
'We do not believe Myanmar'
Friday's memorandum, which was not released to the public, came nearly five months after Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed a bilateral deal for what they said would be the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine.
In southeastern Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, a Rohingya leader at the Kutupalong refugee camp welcomed the U.N.'s signature on Friday's MoU.
"We want to go back to Arakan [Rakhine]. But we do not believe Myanmar. We believe the United Nations. We will do what the UNHCR says," Jahid Hossain told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
On Wednesday, senior officials from Myanmar's government, including Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, paid an unprecedented visit to Kutupalong. During their visit, they urged Rohingya to return to Rakhine.
"We are responsible to protect all the people living in our country. We will solve all the problems to have peace and stability. ... Just cooperate with us, and return," Aye told a group of refugees at the camp.
UNHCR's memorandum with the Bangladeshi government also came a day after Saudi Arabia's King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center pledged to give the U.N. agency U.S. $3 million (249 million taka) in emergency relief assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
In November 2017, the U.S. government pledged $47 million in aid for Rohingya relief, bringing the total aid package to about $150 million, beginning in October 2016 following an earlier exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar.
Repatriation deal with Myanmar
On Nov. 23, 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed a repatriation deal seeking to establish a process for the voluntary and safe return of thousands of Rohingya to Rakhine. The agreement, which called for the process to begin within two months, included a provision that the governments could associate with U.N. agencies in the repatriation process.
Since then, however, Myanmar has refused to involve UNHCR, Bangladesh state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh officials welcomed UNHCR's assistance.
"We need the UNHCR in the repatriation process, they have huge expertise in repatriating refugees. The UNHCR can help us fill the repatriation forms properly and provide necessary logistics," Mohammad Abul Kalam, the Bangladeshi commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, told BenarNews earlier this week.
In February, Bangladesh presented a list of 8,032 Rohingya for verification by Myanmar authorities to begin the repatriation process.
"So far, Myanmar authorities have given us clearance of 670 names in three phases. The verification is a continuous process. Hopefully, they would verify more people," Kalam said.
Myanmar authorities told their Bangladesh counterparts that the forms were not filled out properly.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
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