The head of the Red Cross yesterday said it was not safe to return Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar, where he described whole villages abandoned and destroyed.
Peter Maurer toured strife-torn western Myanmar before visiting refugee camps over the border in neighboring Bangladesh, where nearly one million Rohingya have sought refuge from violence. The bulk of the persecuted Muslims in Bangladesh have arrived since August, fleeing a huge Myanmar army crackdown in troubled Rakhine state that the U.N. has likened to ethnic cleansing.
Relief agencies warn that conditions in Rakhine, which is heavily restricted to international observers, remain too unsafe to consider repatriating the Rohingya to Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said a lot more was needed to improve the situation he witnessed in Rakhine during an official visit the past few days.
"What I've seen in terms of destruction of villages, abandonment of situations, disruptions in markets, of livelihood, of communities, I don't think the present moment is an ideal condition to return," Maurer told AFP in an interview in Chakmarkul refugee camp. He said more was needed for those families eking out survival in gigantic tent cities in Bangladesh, where many would rather endure hardship than return to persecution. "We need to prepare the ground for returns for those who wish to return," Maurer said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in November to begin repatriating the Rohingya but the process has stalled, with both sides accusing the other of frustrating the effort.
Fewer than 200 have been resettled, and the vast majority refuse to contemplate returning until their rights, citizenship and safety are assured. The Rohingya are loathed by many in Myanmar, where they were stripped of citizenship and branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite calling Rakhine their homeland.