A UN assessment shows that the current conditions in northern Rakhine are “not conducive for safe, dignified and sustainable return” of forcible displaced Rohingya Muslims sheltered in Bangladesh, despite the Myanmar government citing its readiness to take them back.
The assessment was carried out by the UNHCR and UNDP in 23 villages and three village tracts in Myanmar's Rakhine State last month.
“Our teams assessed immediate community needs and priorities for our short-term actions. The rapid assessments also help to identify community initiatives that could support the Government's efforts to improve the lives of all affected populations, build trust and promote social cohesion among all communities,” said the assessment report released on October 5.
It showed that there were still restrictions on travel and shrinking access to livelihood and basic services in the Rakhine State. Muslim communities in particular were not allowed to move freely and have no access to education, healthcare and other basic services.
Furthermore, residents from different communities that spoke with the UN assessment teams said they were concerned for their safety and feared their neighbouring communities.
“Communities also spoke of the cumulative effect of restrictions on movement, further shrinking their access to livelihood and basic services. While some self-restrict their movement for real or perceived sense of insecurity or fear of neighbouring communities, others -- particularly [from] the Muslim communities -- are not allowed to move freely,” the statement said.
“The communities we visited frequently spoke of challenges in getting to health services as well as restrictions on the Muslim population in accessing education,” the UN assessment teams said.
The teams observed the serious effects on the communities, including on the local economy and diminishing livelihoods, which significantly increases the vulnerability of the communities remaining in Rakhine.
It added that fear and mistrust had an impact on access to education, healthcare and other basic services and also limited interactions between communities, hindering prospects for confidence-building and social cohesion.
“Building confidence and improving conditions among remaining communities will be essential to bring people together, to alleviate poverty, and to address health and education disparities alongside making tangible progress to address root causes,” the assessment report said.
“Mistrust, fear of neighbouring communities and a sense of insecurity are prevalent in many areas. Communities often live in isolation, lowering the prospects for contacts, mutual understanding and inter-communal cohesion. This is notable for relations between the Muslim community and other communities.”
The assessment teams also observed that some communities, particularly those living in close proximity to each other, have maintained or restarted interactions.
Encouragingly, most of those who spoke to the teams expressed hope for peace in Rakhine and a number of them indicated willingness to incrementally strengthen or restore relations.
Although the two lead UN agencies partly unveiled their firsthand accounts in the statement, they did not elaborate on the infrastructural arrangements made by the government in Maungdaw for the implementation of “model villages for returnees” or plans for a long-term solution for the returnees.
The UN officials stated that they noted the efforts of authorities to facilitate initial assessment although those were limited in scope and in the locations visited.
While they do not allow for broader conclusions, the field visits had given UNHCR and UNDP an initial understanding of the challenges facing those living there.
The UN was allowed for a limited assessment of three months after the UNHCR and UNDP signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Myanmar on June 6 to support the creation of conditions for the return of refugees from Bangladesh.
a Myanmar daily, The Irrawaddy, reported, quoting Maungdaw District administrative official U Ye Htoo, that work had begun on two projects: building modest houses for the refugees and a new model village plan.
The structures are being built in 19 locations and will house Rohingyas and some non-Muslim groups. The government has 12 prioritised sites for new model villages with each one expected to include a market, school, public park and clinic.
As of Friday morning, the UNHCR and UNDP teams are starting the second phase of their assessments in the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, based on the travel authorisations received in the past 24 hours, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in Geneva.
“We also look to have more predictable and broader access and rapid expansion of assessments and discussions continue on the modalities of 'effective access' to all areas in Rakhine covered by the Memorandum of Understanding.”
He said the crucial next steps would include follow-up visits to already assessed locations in order to continue engaging with communities and facilitate design and implementation of pre-identified community-based initiatives.
Nearly 750,000 Rohingyas refugees fled Rakhine to Bangladesh following a brutal military crackdown that began on August 25, 2017. They joined the other 300,000 Rohingyas who had earlier fled into Bangladesh.
Dhaka claims that over 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims now live in Bangladesh.