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Deal Allows Rohingya Refugees To Return To Myanmar


Pope Francis is arriving in Myanmar today. And it's a really delicate moment there. The country is facing scathing criticism for its treatment of its Rohingya people, a Muslim minority. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled a brutal crackdown by Myanmar's security forces. The U.S. and the U.N. have labeled this crackdown ethnic cleansing. Now, there was what looked like a positive headline on Friday. Bangladesh, which is hosting most of the refugees, reached a tentative deal with Myanmar to return Rohingya to their homes. But as Michael Sullivan reports, there's a lot of skepticism.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: As trial balloons go, the air came out of this one kind of quickly.


ADRIAN EDWARDS: The present conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine State are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns.

SULLIVAN: That's United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards speaking in Geneva on Friday.


EDWARDS: Refugees are still fleeing. And many have suffered violence, rape and deep psychological and physical harm. Some have witnessed the deaths of family members and friends. Most have little or nothing to go back to, their homes and villages destroyed. And humanitarian access in northern Rakhine State remains negligible.

SULLIVAN: And that's from the U.N. agency that usually plays a key role in repatriation efforts like this one. But a spokesperson says the UNHCR hasn't even been approached by the governments involved, even though Bangladesh's foreign minister insisted on Saturday that the UNHCR would play a part.

PHIL ROBERTSON: Bangladesh is very keen to get UNHCR, the refugee agency, involved in this. But UNHCR wasn't a party to negotiations, nor were they actual Rohingya, who are the people who are supposed to be going back.

SULLIVAN: That's Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. He says it's going to be a very long slog before this agreement gets any traction, if at all, especially when it says Rohingya who wish to return have to show papers proving they were residents of Myanmar to begin with.

ROBERTSON: How many of them are still going to have any sort of documentation after their houses and villages are burned? Human Rights Watch documented over 330 villages were torched in northern Rakhine State by the Burma army. Men were being shot. Women were being raped. I don't think they were thinking about, do I have the ID card in my back pocket?

SULLIVAN: Nor does the agreement spell out how many Rohingya would be allowed to return by Myanmar, an agreement that doesn't even use the word Rohingya, since Myanmar doesn't recognize them as citizens, an agreement that makes only vague assurances of safety for those who might want to go back, all of which makes the voluntary return of the refugees highly unlikely, agreement or not. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.