The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced on June 6th that they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Myanmar. The MoU will provide UNHCR and UNDP access to the Rakhine State in western Myanmar, the area which saw the large displacement of the Rohingya. This agreement is intended to catalyse the process of establishing conditions “conducive” for the voluntary return of exiled Rohingya. Being on the ground allows these bodies to share vital information with the refugees and to work with the Myanmar authorities to achieve the desired outcome of the agreement.
The Rohingya people have long been the subject of prejudice in Myanmar (formerly Burma); exemplified by the 1982 Citizenship Law in Myanmar prohibits Rohingya from being recognized as citizens. This discrimination has been prolonged throughout recent history but reared its head in August of 2017 when the independent Myanmar military began an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. According to the UNHCR around 170,0000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar in the 5 years prior to the elevation in violence; the International Organisation for Migration estimated in late May that more than 700,000 had done the same since.
Tun Khin, President of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, wrote for The Diplomat that the agreement was produced “without involving Rohingya representatives” and lacked transparency with the full text not being released to the public. He showed frustration with the lengthy process, skeptical that this agreement will be successful. When approached for comment Paul Vrieze of UNHCR Myanmar said that “we cannot estimate how long” until Rohingya will be able to return. Andrej Mahecic of UNHCR in Geneva added that negotiations were ongoing, continuing by saying that the “real test of this agreement will be its implementation on the ground.” Responding to concerns surrounding representation in the agreement, Vrieze assured that the UN bodies will “engage and closely consult” with the Rohingya throughout the process. Both stressed that the decision to return to Myanmar will be made “voluntarily” by those affected; Mahecic highlighting that it is the UNHCR’s role to provide the refugees with “independent information” which will aid them in this decision. On transparency, Vrieze explained that all three parties need to consent to the public release of the agreement and that the UN bodies were awaiting a response from the Myanmar government to their request for this to occur.
The actions of the UNHCR and UNDP are positive as an initial step to allowing the restoration of Rohingya in the Rakhine State. Due to the destructive events which prompted their exile, it is important to prevent further tragedy by not rushing the process of repatriation. The UNHCR and UNDP should continue engaging with both the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure that the Rohingya are informed in a way that gives them a complete understanding of the varying situation. They should also ensure that the Myanmar government is taking appropriate actions to ensure conditions are appropriate for the return of the Rohingya.
This process will undoubtedly be a long road to achieve the desired outcome. Change within the government and military of Myanmar will be needed to ensure that the Rohingya will no longer be subject to violence in the Rakhine State. Soon after the agreement of the MoU, leaders of these two branches of power met to discuss the unfolding situation. This trend of more communication amongst leaders of states and Inter-Governmental Organisations needs to continue to achieve absolute and positive change in the security of the Rohingya people in returning to the Rakhine State.
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