YANGON, MYANMAR - Myanmar's government said it reached an agreement on Thursday with two U.N. agencies for their help in the return of refugees who fled violence in western Rakhine state.
About 700,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled to squalid camps in neighboring Bangladesh since last August, when Myanmar's army led a brutal crackdown following insurgent attacks on security posts.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to begin repatriating the Rohingya, but the refugees expressed concern that they would be forced to return and would face unsafe conditions in Myanmar if the process is not monitored by international aid groups.
The government said in a statement that it initialed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. refugee agency for their assistance so that verified displaced people “can return voluntarily in safety and dignity.”
The U.N. said in a separate statement that conditions in Myanmar are not yet appropriate for the voluntary return of the Rohingya, but that the agreement would support government efforts to improve the situation.
It said the agreement, which is expected to be formally signed within a week, will provide a framework for the two agencies to be given access to Rakhine state, which has not been allowed since the violence broke out in August.
It said that will allow the refugee agency to assess the situation, carry out protection activities, and provide information to refugees about conditions in their home areas so that they can better decide whether they want to return.
Myanmar's security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of the homes of Rohingya villagers. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar has said it will only allow refugees with identity documents - which most Rohingya lack - to return.
Rohingya Muslims face official and social discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies most of them citizenship and basic rights because they are considered immigrants from Bangladesh.