Myanmar finally grants UN first access to Rakhine before Rohingya returns
The United Nations has begun assessment of conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state after it was finally given permission to operate there for the first time since violence escalated last year and forced more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar granted specialists from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) the permission to enter northern Rakhine on Friday before work began on Wednesday.
"The team is on the ground and commenced with the first assessments today," UNHCR spokeswoman Aoife McDonnell said Wednesday.
The access came two months after the UN signed an agreement with Myanmar that would give its agencies access to the epicenter of the Rohingya crisis as members of the persecuted minority fear returning to their home country. The deal aimed to pave the way for voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
More than 700,000 members of the Muslim minority group have fled the state-sponsored violence to southeast Bangladesh since the military launched a crackdown on the Rohingya in August 2017. The UN has described the campaign as a textbook example of "ethnic cleansing," saying it possibly amounts to "genocide" as well.
Bangladesh and Myanmar reached an agreement in December for the repatriation of the Rohingya to begin in January. However, many refugees still refuse to return to Myanmar out of fears that they might be subject to renewed crackdown by the military and Buddhist mobs.
The UN teams are expected to visit 23 villages and three additional clusters of hamlets. This first step of the UN's "confidence-building measures" is estimated to take two weeks.
The expectation is this "very initial and small step in terms of access will be expanded rapidly to all areas covered" by the deal, McDonnell added.
On Monday, the United Nations' new human rights chief called for the establishment of “an independent international mechanism” to prepare criminal indictments against Myanmar’s military for atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslim community.
Her remarks preceded a ruling by the International Criminal Court that it has jurisdiction to probe the forced deportations of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh as a possible crime against humanity.