UN accused of abetting Myanmar junta repatriation of Rohingya refugees

The United Nations (UN) has publicly urged a resolution to the Rohingya crisis that prioritises the refugees’ safety, but critics questioned their commitment to that aim this week as leaked documents alleged the UN refugee agency cooperated with the military regime in a pilot repatriation project. 

Internal communications from UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar Ramanathan Balakrishnan which were leaked to the humanitarian law organisation Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP) reportedly revealed that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took part in a junta initiative to return Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to their homes in Rakhine State under military supervision. 

A Thursday statement by MAP described how messages between Balakrishnan and other UN staff showed that the UN helped transport a delegation of junta officials to meet with refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh for this purpose, providing boats with the UN markings removed. 

According to a report in The Irrawaddy, the delegation, led by Rakhine State’s junta-appointed social welfare minister Aung Myo, arrived in Cox’s Bazar this week to vet and approve Rohingya people for “family-based” repatriation as part of a new pilot project. 

Also on Thursday, UN Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer gave remarks to the UN General Assembly underscoring the gravity of the ongoing crisis, which peaked in 2017 with genocidal military violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya people. 

“More than five years since the forced mass exodus from Rakhine State, the Rohingya are persecuted and stateless, and continue to suffer extreme hardship, living in difficult conditions and facing tremendous challenges,” Heyzer said. 

Noting the unsustainable conditions in the Bangladesh camps, Heyzer called for a repatriation process that would prioritise the refugees’ security and long-term interests. 

“Return cannot be the mere act of closing camps or moving people. It must be a process that achieves durable solutions and guarantees the safety and wellbeing of the population concerned,” she said.

However, activists questioned the UN’s adherence to that standard in light of the alleged cooperation with the junta’s repatriation plan.

Calling the military-supervised initiative a “stunt,” MAP director Chris Gunness noted that the junta is trying to garner goodwill from the international community ahead of plans to hold a vote under its control later this year. 

“For the UN to be supporting this blatant piece of junta propaganda in advance of sham elections brings the UN’s involvement in the genocide of the Rohingya to a new low,” Gunness said. 

Pro-democracy activists have condemned any so-called vote under the junta as illegitimate.

Alleged UN support for the junta’s pilot project contradicts a Wednesday statement by a UNHCR spokesperson to an RFA affiliate explaining that conditions in Rakhine State were not yet safe for Rohingya people to return. 

Bangladesh’s 34 Rohingya refugee camps currently house around 1 million displaced people from Myanmar. After the mass exodus in 2017 left many Rohingya lands in their native Rakhine State unoccupied, the military began to confiscate Rohingya-owned property en masse.

The Myanmar military has repeatedly sought to avoid accountability for its role in atrocities against Rohingya people. In recent weeks, the regime has tried to press Rohingya people still living in Rakhine State into giving favourable testimony in Myanmar’s upcoming genocide trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. 

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