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The United Nations refugee agency is set to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Bangladesh laying out a framework for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma, an agency spokesman said on Wednesday.
The MoU is aimed at establishing cooperation between the UN agency and Bangladesh “on the safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of refugees in line with international standards, if and when the conditions are conducive to returns,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Andrej Mahecic.
Mahecic and Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Mohammad Shahidul Haque said the MoU will be signed on Friday in Geneva.
Another Bangladeshi official involved in the discussions said the MoU is likely to lay out that the UNHCR will vet all refugees being repatriated to ensure that the process is 100 percent voluntary.
“The whole return process will be operated as per the UNHCR, so there will be no force put on the refugee to go back,” said the source.
Some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown and crossed into Bangladesh from Burma’s Rakhine State since August. The refugees are living in cramped camps at Cox’s Bazar, and Bangladesh is keen to urge the refugees to return home soon, especially with the oncoming monsoons expected to cause major devastation at the camps.
The official, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to discuss matters with the media, said the UNHCR is expected to run a few transit sites along the border that will house refugees before they are transferred to temporary resettlement shelters in Rakhine State.
The official added that the UN body is expected to arrange sufficient funds to run the repatriation programme and that both the parties would conduct promotional activities urging people to return to Burma.
A Burmese minister told Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday that their repatriation was a priority, in the first visit by a top Burma official since last year’s exodus.
The bilateral MoU would be an early step in the process; work on a deal involving Bangladesh, Burma and the UNHCR is ongoing. That tripartite deal would aim to provide guarantees around the resettlement and safety of those that agree to be repatriated, along with assurances that officials of the UNHCR will be allowed to regularly inspect these sites.
Htin Lynn, Burma’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told Reuters later on Wednesday that he was confident that his country could reach a deal with UNHCR by the end of April covering safe and voluntary repatriation.