Myanmar not ready for return of Rohingya Muslims, says UNHCR

FILE PHOTO: A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – The U.N. refugee agency called a Myanmar minister’s visit to Bangladesh to meet Muslim Rohingya refugees a confidence-building measure, but said conditions in Myanmar were not ready for their return.

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, who heads rehabilitation efforts in Myanmar’s troubled western Rakhine state, told about 50 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday that getting the repatriation process moving was top priority.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday Myanmar was not prepared.

“Conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees,” it said in a statement, adding that the responsibility remains with the government to create such conditions.

According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine to escape a military crackdown since August, amid reports of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar troops and Buddhist vigilantes which the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its security forces launched a legitimate counter-insurgency operation on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks.

The refugees are living in cramped camps in the port of Cox’s Bazar and Bangladesh is keen for them to return home soon, especially with the oncoming monsoons expected to cause major devastation at the camps.

The UNHCR called on Myanmar to provide the agency unhindered access in Rakhine to assess the situation and monitor the return and reintegration of refugees if and when they voluntarily return.

Acknowledging the mistrust and fear of the Rohingya of Myanmar, Win Myat Aye told the group of refugees on Wednesday to set aside the past and to prepare to go back, promising new villages would be built with hospitals and schools.

But some refugees have said they are worried about going back, fearing persecution.

(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

Opposition groups quit Iraqi Kurdish government

People are seen outside the Directorate of province building after it was set on fire by Kurdish protesters in Pera magroon district in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq December 19,

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Leading Kurdish opposition movement Gorran has withdrawn its ministers from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its member Yousif Mohamed has resigned as parliament speaker, party sources told Reuters on Wednesday.

The Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), another opposition party with a smaller presence in parliament, also withdrew from the government.

The departures follow two days of violent unrest in the region, as Kurdish demonstrators joined protests against years of austerity and unpaid public sector salaries, amid tensions between their region and Baghdad.

Some protesters have demanded the regional government’s ousting.

Tension has been high in the region since the central government in Baghdad imposed tough measures when the KRG unilaterally held an independence referendum on Sept. 25 and Kurds voted overwhelmingly to secede.

The move, in defiance of Baghdad, also alarmed neighboring Turkey and Iran who have their own Kurdish minorities.

At least three people were killed and more than 80 wounded on Tuesday. They were killed in clashes with Kurdish security forces, local officials said, and some were injured when the crowd was shot at with rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas.

Protesters also attacked several offices of the main political parties in Sulaimaniya province on Monday and Tuesday.

CURFEWS IMPOSED

There were no major protests in the city on Wednesday.

Security forces from the region’s capital Erbil have been deployed to help quell the unrest in the city, security sources told Reuters.

After Tuesday’s unrest, curfews were imposed in several towns across the province, some have lasted through Wednesday.

Local media reported smaller protests in towns across the province, including Ranya and Kifri.

In a statement on Tuesday, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who is on an official visit to Germany, told protesters that although he understood their frustrations, the burning of political party offices is “not helpful”.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” about violence and clashes during the protests, and called for restraint on all sides.

“The people have the right to partake in peaceful demonstrations, and the authorities have the responsibility of protecting their citizens, including peaceful protesters,” UNAMI said in a statement.

UNAMI also called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to respect media freedoms after Kurdish Asayish security forces on Tuesday raided the offices of Kurdish private broadcast NRT in Sulaimaniya, and took the channel off the air.

NRT’s founder and opposition figure Shaswar Abdulwahid was also arrested at the Sulaimaniya airport on Tuesday. His family have asked for his release, amid reports that another NRT journalist was arrested in Sulaimaniya on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting and writing by Raya Jalabi in Erbil and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Editing by William Maclean)

Turkish PM calls Rohingya killings in Myanmar ‘genocide’

Rohingya refugee children play at the Shamlapur refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday dubbed the killing of minority Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar by its security forces “genocide” and urged the international community to ensure their safety back home.

Binali Yildirim met several Rohingyas in two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.

Almost 870,000 Rohingya fled there, about 660,000 of whom arrived after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

“The Myanmar military has been trying to uproot Rohingya Muslim community from their homeland and for that they persecuted them, set fire to their homes, villages, raped and abused women and killed them,” Yildirim told reporters from Cox’s Bazar, before flying back to Turkey.

“It’s one kind of a genocide,” he said.

“The international community should also work together to ensure their safe and dignified return to their homeland,” Yildirim, who was accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, said.

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state in the month after violence flared up on Aug. 25, MSF said last week.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the violence “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said he would not be surprised if a court eventually ruled that genocide had taken place.

Yildirim inaugurated a medical camp at Balukhali, sponsored by Turkey, and handed over two ambulances to Cox’s Bazar district administration. He also distributed food to Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong makeshift camp.

He urged the international community to enhance support for Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help find a political solution to this humanitarian crisis.

U.N. investigators have heard Rohingya testimony of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”.

The United Nations defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Such a designation is rare under international law, but has been used in contexts including Bosnia, Sudan and an Islamic State campaign against the Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition after decades of military rule.

Yildirim’s trip follows Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan’s visit in September to the Rohingya camp, when she said the crack down in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was “tantamount to genocide” and a solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Myanmar alone.

(Reporting by Mohammad Nurul Islam; Editing by Malini Menon and Richard Balmforth)

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

By Damir Sagolj

COX’S BAZAR (Reuters) – Dawn hues of pink and purple reveal a dusty valley in Bangladesh’s southern hills quilted with a dense settlement of red tents home to more than 230 women and children grieving for lost husbands and fathers.

They are among more than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh since late August, following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants.

Roshid Jan, who walked for 10 days with her five children to Bangladesh after soldiers burned their village, wept when she spoke about her missing husband.

He was accused of being a member of the Rohingya militants and arrested with four other villagers 11 months ago, she said.

She had not seen him or heard about his fate since then.

Aisha Begum, a 19-year-old widow, said her husband was killed by Myanmar soldiers as their band of refugees headed for Bangladesh.

“I was sitting there by his body and just crying, crying, crying,” she said.

“He was caught and killed with knives. I found his body by the road. It was in three pieces,” she cried, recounting the events that brought her to the camp.

(Click http://reut.rs/2BHPPax for a photo essay)

Most Rohingya are stateless and seen as illegal immigrants by Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

The United Nations and United States have described the military’s actions as ethnic cleansing, and rights groups have accused the security forces of atrocities, including rape, arson and killings.

Myanmar’s government has denied most of the claims, and the army has said its own probe found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.

There are 50 tents and no men in the camp for widows and orphans, the biggest of three sites built with donor funds from Muslim-majority Pakistan in the refugee settlement of Balukhali not far from Bangladesh’s resort town of Cox’s Bazar.

Two makeshift kitchens provide space for cooking in small holes in the ground, a new well is being dug to supplement a water pump, and a big tent serves for prayers.

“For those who can’t pray, we have learning sessions on Monday and Friday in a special room,” said 20-year-old Suwa Leha, who serves as the camp’s unofficial leader.

Praying and reading the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was one of two conditions for admittance set by religious and group leaders, Suwa said. The other was that widows and orphans be selected from among the most vulnerable and needy.

The camp is marooned amid ponds and streams of dirty water left by the washing of clothes and dishes. Behind are thousands of dwellings in a vast refugee camp that sprang up during the crisis.

Still, the women are relieved to have their own space.

“For those with no protection, a camp like this is much safer,” said 22-year-old Rabiya Khatun, who lives there with her son. “No man can enter that easily. Also, the rooms are bigger and we have more chances of receiving some aid.”

Women and girls number about 51 percent of the distressed and traumatized Rohingya population in the Cox’s Bazar camps, the U.N. Women agency said in October.

“Women and children are also at heightened risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse or child and forced marriage,” it added.

Women and adolescent girls aged between 13 and 20 arriving from Myanmar typically had two to four children each, it said, with some of them pregnant.

No relief agencies officially run the camp for the widows and orphans but aid groups and individuals help out.

Rihana Begum lives with her five children in a room that is bare except for a few tomatoes, some religious books and clothes. On a thin mat lies her daughter, ill with fever, but fear of missing food handouts keeps them away from the doctor.

“I’m afraid to miss aid distribution. I can’t afford to miss it,” she said on the day ration cards from the World Food Program were distributed in the camp.

This week, Myanmar said it was finalizing terms for a joint working group with Bangladesh to launch the process of safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees within two months.

That may not be enough to allay Rihana Begum’s fears.

“I’m so afraid that I will never go back to Myanmar,” she said. “I would rather die here.”

(Reporting by Damir Sagolj; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

Rohingya refugees still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh: UNHCR

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Rohingya refugees continue to flee Myanmar for Bangladesh even though both countries set up a timetable last month to allow them to start to return home, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR)said on Thursday.

The number of refugees appears to have slowed. 625,000 have arrived since Aug. 25. 30,000 came last month and around 1,500 arrived last week, UNHCR said

“The refugee emergency in Bangladesh is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world,” said deputy high commissioner Kelly Clements. “Conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhaine state are not in place to enable a safe and sustainable return … refugees are still fleeing.”

“Most have little or nothing to go back to. Their homes and villages have been destroyed. Deep divisions between communities remain unaddressed and human access is inadequate,” she said.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on Nov. 23 to start the return of Rohingya within two months. It did not say when the process would be complete.

Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority, according to the top U.N. human rights official this week. Mainly Buddhist Myanmar denies the Muslim Rohingya are its citizens and considers them foreigners.

UNHCR would make a fresh appeal to donors for funds after the end of February in next year, Kelly said.

(Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Bangladesh could move some Rohingya to flood-prone island next year: official

Bangladesh could move some Rohingya to flood-prone island next year: official

By Krishna N. Das and Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh could start relocating Rohingya Muslim refugees to a flood-prone island off its coast in the middle of next year, a government official said on Thursday, as it pushes ahead with the plan despite criticism from aid agencies and rights groups.

Densely populated Bangladesh has seen an influx of more than 620,000 Rohingya to its southern-most district of Cox’s Bazar, fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar, since August.

This week, it approved a $280 million plan to develop the low-lying Bhashan Char island to temporarily house some of them until they can go home.

The Bay of Bengal island, also known as Thenger Char, only emerged from the silt off Bangladesh’s delta coast about 11 years ago.

Two hours by boat from the nearest settlement, the island has no roads or buildings and it regularly floods during the rough seas of the June-September rainy season.

When the sea is calm, pirates roam the waters in the vicinity to kidnap fishermen for ransom.

“We can’t keep such a large number of people in this small area of Cox’s Bazar where their presence is having a devastating effect on the situation on the ground environmentally, population wise and economically,” H.T. Imam, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, told Reuters on Thursday.

“So, as quickly as we can shift at least some of the burden over to Bhashan Char, that will minimize the problem.”

Rohingya have fled repression in Buddhist-majority Myanmar several times since the 1970s, and almost one most million of them live in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Mainly Muslim Bangladesh has said it aims to move about 100,000 refugees to the island.

Some aid officials speculate that by raising the island plan, Bangladesh could be trying to put pressure on the international community to find a better solution to the crisis.

But Imam, who holds the rank of cabinet minister, has denied any such tactic.

‘HUGE PROJECT’

He said the navy had started work on developing the island, money for which will come from the government.

Bangladesh, however, would need financial and other help from aid agencies to move the refugees to the island, he said.

“There are some organizations which have assured help but I won’t specify who they are,” Imam said.

“It’s a huge project and includes the development of livestock. They will be given cattle, they will be given land, they will be given houses. They will raise their livestock, there will be other vocations that will be created.”

Humanitarian agencies, however, have criticized the plan since it was first floated in 2015.

“Having opened its doors to more than 600,000 Rohingya over the past three months, the Bangladesh government now risks undermining the protection of the Rohingya and squandering the international goodwill it has earned,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, referring to the plan to move people to the island.

“In its desperation to see the Rohingya leave the camps and ultimately return to Myanmar, it is putting their safety and well-being at risk.”

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an accord last week on terms for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, though rights groups have expressed doubts about Myanmar following through on the agreement and have called for independent observers for any repatriation.

There are concerns about protection for Rohingya from further violence if and when they go home, and about a path to resolving their legal status – most are stateless – and whether they would be allowed to return to their old homes.

Imam said Bangladesh was working on those issues but did not give details.

“In diplomacy, there are a lot of things that happen but then you don’t pronounce them publicly,” he said. “A lot of back-door diplomatic work is being done. People are involved at the highest level.”

For a graphic on Bangladesh’s Rohingya relocation plan, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2kULcWn

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.N. rights forum to hold special session on Myanmar Rohingya – U.N. sources

U.N. rights forum to hold special session on Myanmar Rohingya - U.N. sources

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to hold a special session on killings, rapes and other crimes committed against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar that have driven more than 600,000 into Bangladesh since August, U.N. sources said on Monday.

“There will be a special session on December 5,” a senior United Nations source told Reuters.

Council spokesman Rolando Gomez could not confirm the date but said: “There are moves to convene a special session to address the human rights situation in the country.”

At least 16 of the 47 member states must request holding a special session of the Council, which are rare. Bangladesh and Muslim-majority countries were expected to back the call.

In March, the Council already set up a fact-finding team. The investigators reported after their first mission to Bangladesh last month that Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar had testified that a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson is taking place”.

The latest Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh’s southern tip began at the end of August, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has described the army’s crackdown in Rakhine state as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. The military has denied the accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement.

Amnesty International and other activist groups, in an open letter sent last week to member states, said that a special session was “imperative to launch decisive action and ensure international scrutiny and monitoring of the situation”.

Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Monday on a diplomatically delicate visit for the leader of the Roman Catholic church to the majority-Buddhist country.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Gareth Jones)

Bangladesh says agreed with Myanmar for UNHCR to assist Rohingya’s return

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to take help from the U.N. refugee agency to safely repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who had fled violence in Myanmar, Bangladesh said on Saturday.

More than 600,000 Rohingya sought sanctuary in Bangladesh after the military in mostly Buddhist Myanmar launched a brutal counter-insurgency operation in their villages across the northern parts of Rakhine State following attacks by Rohingya militants on an army base and police posts on Aug. 25.

Faced with a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, the two governments signed a pact on Thursday agreeing that the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar should start within two months.

Uncertainty over whether the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would have a role had prompted rights groups to insist that outside monitors were needed to safeguard the Rohingya’s return.

Addressing a news conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali gave assurances that the UNHCR would play some part.

“Both countries agreed to take help from the UNHCR in the Rohingya repatriation process,” Ali said. “Myanmar will take its assistance as per their requirement.”

The diplomatic breakthrough came just ahead of a visit by Pope Francis to Myanmar and Bangladesh from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2 that is aimed at promoting “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace”.

While the violence in Rakhine has mostly ceased, Rohingya have continued to stream out of Myanmar, saying they have largely lost access to sources of livelihood such as their farms, fisheries and markets.

Thousands of Rohingya, most of them old people, women and children, remain stranded on beaches near the border, waiting for a boat to take them to Bangladesh.

FROM CAMP TO CAMP

Ali said a joint working group, to be formed within three weeks, will fix the final terms to start the repatriation process.

After leaving the refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya who opt to be voluntarily repatriated will be moved to camps in Myanmar, the minister said.

“Most houses were burnt down. Where they will live after going back? So, it is not possible to physically return to their homes,” Ali said.

Myanmar officials have said returnees will be moved to camps only temporarily while so-called “model villages” are constructed near their former homes.

Win Myat Aye, the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement who heads a Myanmar government panel on rehabilitation in Rakhine, said India and China had offered to provide “modular houses” for returnees.

The U.N. and the United States have described the Myanmar military’s actions as “ethnic cleansing”, and rights groups have accused the security forces of committing atrocities, including mass rape, arson and killings.

The United States also warned it could impose sanctions on individuals responsible for alleged abuses.

Led by Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar is in the early stages of a transition to democracy after decades of military rule. But civilian government is less than two years old, and still shares power with the generals, who retain autonomy over matters of defense, security and borders.

The commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has denied that soldiers committed any atrocities.

On Friday he met China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing having been told earlier in the week by a top Chinese general that China wanted stronger ties with Myanmar’s military.

Under the deal struck with Bangladesh, Myanmar agreed to take measures to see that the returnees will not be settled in temporary places for a long time.

Myanmar plans to issue them an identity card on their return, although most Rohingya have so far rejected a scheme to give them “national verification cards”.

While the agreement says Bangladesh would seek the U.N. refugee agency’s assistance on the process, Myanmar – which has largely blocked aid agencies from working in northern Rakhine since August – only agreed “that the services of the UNHCR could be drawn upon as needed and at the appropriate time”.

Win Myat Aye told Reuters on Saturday that Myanmar would discuss “technical assistance” with the UNHCR, but had not reached a formal agreement with the agency.

There were already hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh before the latest exodus, and the Bangladesh minister said they could also be considered for the repatriation, under the terms of the agreement.

The agreement, however, says they will be “considered separately on the conclusion of the present agreement.”

Some independent estimates suggest there are still a few hundred thousand Rohingya remaining in Rakhine.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in DHAKA and Thu Thu Aung in YANGON; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Stephen Powell)

Rohingya refugees ‘drained’ by trauma, says U.N. refugee chief

Rohingya refugees 'drained' by trauma, says U.N. refugee chief

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh from violence in Myanmar have been “drained” by the trauma they suffered during the crisis and a struggle to overcome desperate want, the United Nations refugee chief said on Wednesday.

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since late August this year for neighboring Bangladesh, driven out by a military clearance operation in Rakhine State.

The refugees’ suffering has caused an international outcry, spurring appeals by aid agencies for millions of dollars in funds to tackle the crisis.

“I found this was a population that had almost no response. Very passive,” said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, describing his visit late in September to camps where the refugees were staying.

“You almost felt there was nothing left and that everything had been drained by this,” he told Reuters in an interview in his first visit to the South Korean capital.

He saw the lassitude as a symptom of trauma, he added.

“We haven’t seen this kind of trauma for a very long, long time,” the Italian diplomat said. “Maybe I saw it in the ’90s in central Africa.”

Grandi coordinated UN humanitarian activities in the

Democratic Republic of Congo during its 1996-97 civil war.

The success of aid efforts by the United Nations and non-government bodies depends on the Myanmar government to defuse the hostility facing humanitarian workers in Rakhine, Grandi said.

“It’s not political work, it’s not to favor one community over the other,” he said.

“On the contrary, it’s directed to all those who are in need. And when members of the Buddhist community are in need, they certainly qualify for that. I think it’s important that they stress that, they do that more,” said Grandi.

Tension had been rising between the government and aid agencies even before the spasm of violence that began in late August.

Officials had accused the World Food Programme of aiding insurgents after high-energy biscuits were discovered in July at a forest encampment the authorities said belonged to a militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Longstanding antipathy among ethnic Rakhine Buddhists – who say the UN and nongovernment bodies favor the Rohingya with aid deliveries – spiked in August, with protesters demanding that aid agencies leave and the U.N. warning staff against rising hostility.

Since the Aug. 25 militant attacks in Rakhine, the government has barred most aid agencies, except for the Red Cross organizations, from working in the state’s north, and curtailed their activities elsewhere in the state.

In several cases aid deliveries have been forcibly blocked by Rakhine Buddhists.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said the World Food Programme resumed some food distribution in northern Rakhine this month, but limited access meant agencies still do not know how many people were internally displaced over the last three months.

“Access remains restricted for most humanitarian actors in northern Rakhine, preventing them from reaching many people in need,” the agency said. “In central Rakhine, humanitarian organizations also continue to face access constraints.”

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Simon Daniel Lewis; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)