Myanmar minister to visit Rohingya refugee camps

A Rohingya refugee boy carries water in the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 22, 2018.
A Rohingya refugee boy carries water in the Kutupalong refugee camp, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 22, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - A Myanmar government minister will visit the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh "this week", and become the first leader to do so since the humanitarian crisis and exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar's Rakhine state began last August.

The visit by Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye has been agreed to by Bangladesh and will take place as soon as the programme and logistics are worked out, an international advisory board set up to advise on the crisis said on Tuesday (April 3).

About 700 refugees have had their identities verified - a key obstacle in returning to Myanmar- and are in the process of being sent back to Myanmar, said board chair and former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai.

"I hope that this first batch of 700 should be able to return to Rakhine very soon," he told a press conference in Singapore after two days of meeting Myanmar's leaders in Yangon and Napyidaw.

The board, set up by Myanmar to advise on implementing earlier recommendations made by a commission headed by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, yesterday made further recommendations.

The board's suggestion of an independent investigative committee to look into alleged human rights abuses in the Rakhine state is "being seriously considered by the Myanmar authorities", it said.

The board confirmed Myanmar had agreed to a visit by United Nations Security Council representatives. It also urged Asean to help make the Rakhine state a safe and desirable place for the Rohingya refugees to return to, such as by setting up public health facilities and vocational training schools.

Addressing reports that the Rohingya did not want to return to Myanmar, Dr Surakiart said: "So far they have not yet returned. If they felt they could return, they would."

Many began fleeing the country amid military violence against civilians last August, in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.

As the press conference unfolded, so did reports that Malaysia had intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingya refugees after Thailand made them move on.

To resolve the situation, the Rohingyas must be assured their security in Myanmar by the government, said Dr Surakiart, who was flanked by two other members of the nine-member board - Myanmar's human rights commission head Win Mra and Swedish parliament speaker Urban Ahlin.

Dr Win Myat Aye can personally reassure the safety of refugees deciding whether to return to Myanmar, according to Thai ambassador and senior consultant to the board Kobsak Chutikul.

"Not everything can be done immediately, but at least the assurance is from a high-level official," he said.

Refugees who return also need places to live and jobs, said Dr Surakiart. He added: "Some of the people I interviewed who decided not to leave (the refugee camps) said their shops and homes (in Myanmar) had been burned down, they had nothing to do."

Dr Surakiart also met Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to discuss the Rakhine situation.

Dr Balakrishnan encouraged the board to work closely with the Myanmar government to implement the Kofi Annan Commission's recommendations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The minister also noted the need for Myanmar to step up talks with Bangladesh on the repatriation of refugees, and "hoped for the expeditious commencement of their voluntary, safe, secure and dignified return without undue delay".

Said Dr Kobsak: "We are in a race against time, because the (mid-year) monsoons are coming. The camps of almost one million people are not built to withstand monsoons. There will be enormous deaths if all parties do not move to some understanding."