Briefing on Myanmar at the United Nations Security Council

Mr. President,

Members of the Security Council,

Abdullah is a father of eight from Buthidaung, in the northern part of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Fleeing to Bangladesh in September last year, he became a refugee for the third time.

The first was in 1978, when he came to Bangladesh as a young boy, and the second in 1991. That time he remained for three years, and then returned to Myanmar as part of an organised voluntary repatriation operation, anxious to recover his home and his four acres of land.

Back home, he and his family started to rebuild their lives. They had seven cows, and were able to make a living. But, he says, around two years after his return, ‘hope started to fade away.’ Forced labour, confiscation of crops and cattle, and relentless, incremental restrictions on their freedom of movement, their right to worship, and their access to livelihoods constrained their existence.

Last year, his village was attacked, houses were burnt and others in his community, including his own nephew, were shot dead. Hiding nearby, he saw his own home torched. He had no choice but to flee again. And he is, once again, living in a flimsy shelter in Kutupalong refugee settlement together with his family, despairing at the prospect of ever being able to build a safe and stable life. ‘My decision to return was wrong,’ he said recently. ‘That’s why we are suffering now.’

Mr. President,

It is almost six months, as we heard, since the current rapid, chaotic outflow of more than 688,000 refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh began, driven by violence and destruction, following decades of repression and exclusion.

That movement is now significantly reduced - but still continues. Already this month, some 1,500 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh.

The Government and people of Bangladesh continue to receive refugees and to provide them with protection and support. For this, they are to be deeply commended. With reports of insecurity continuing, it is critical that the border remains open and that those still fleeing are able to access safety.

The Government, together with highly-skilled national and local organisations, and the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies, with solid donor support, has mounted an impressive response. Yet conditions remain overcrowded and precarious for many, including host communities. Disease outbreaks, including diptheria, have been met with decisive action, but remain a significant risk. 

We are now in a race against time as a major new emergency looms.  The monsoon season will start in March. We estimate that more than 100,000 refugees are living in areas prone to flooding or landslides. Tens of thousands of particularly vulnerable refugees need to be urgently relocated. Their lives are at grave risk. The foundations of existing shelters need to be strengthened, bridges built and reinforced and new land found and made ready. The Government is steering a massive emergency preparedness effort, but international support, Mr. President, must be stepped up to avert a catastrophe.

The Kutupalong area in Cox’s Bazar is now the largest refugee settlement in the world - with its own character, economy and emerging social structures.

As we have repeatedly said, resolving this crisis means finding solutions inside Myanmar. However, while these are pursued, as they must be, significant support will be required in Bangladesh. Humanitarian action and funding must be sustained, but longer term support will also be required to help the Government reinforce the local infrastructure and economy, and ensure access to opportunities for refugees and the communities hosting them.

Education, and opportunities to develop skills and earn an income will be critical to avoid the deep despair that can set in when refugees are abandoned on the margins of societies. We must ensure that young people retain a vision of a future and that the ground is laid for eventual voluntary return.

Failure to do this, Mr. President and Members of the Council, will inevitably lead to disillusionment and radicalization. It will also expose refugees to protection risks - including sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and other forms of abuse and exploitation.

But the causes of this crisis originate in Myanmar; and a genuine search for solutions must finally start. At the heart of it all is the restoration of rights - including the right of refugees to return home - voluntarily, and in safe, dignified conditions.

Let me be clear. Conditions are not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The causes of their flight have not been addressed, and we have yet to see substantive progress on addressing the exclusion and denial of rights that has deepened over the last decades, rooted in their lack of citizenship.

But preserving the right of return and pursuing the conditions that will enable it to be exercised must remain a central priority. For this reason, I welcome the dialogue between the Government of Bangladesh and the Government of the Union of Myanmar on the voluntary repatriation of refugees, and the commitment to international standards on voluntary, safe and dignified return set out in the arrangement agreed between them in November 2017.

In line with my mandate to support governments to pursue solutions for refugees, UNHCR has extended an offer of support to both governments, including by participating in the joint working group established for its implementation. The framework for return should eventually be defined in a tripartite agreement between the two governments and UNHCR.  Our offer of support remains open.

The construction of infrastructure to support the logistics of return should not be confused with the establishment of conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation. An end to violence and destruction of property, and granting humanitarian access throughout Rakhine State – as called for by the Secretary-General – are critical, and basic, steps.

Humanitarian access, as you have heard, remains extremely restricted. UNHCR has not had access to affected areas of the northern part of Rakhine State, beyond Maungdaw town, since August 2017, and our access in central Rakhine has also been curtailed. UNHCR presence and access throughout the state are essential to monitor protection conditions, provide independent information to refugees, and accompany returns as and when they take place. Refugees must be able to return to a place of their choice, including the location where they previously resided. 'Temporary' arrangements should be avoided; as we have seen in Myanmar and elsewhere, they have a tendency to persist for considerably longer than envisaged, and to take on a permanent character.

The recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State are an important blueprint for a peaceful and inclusive future, and hence for the sustainable return of refugees. I fully endorse the two-track approach envisaged in the report: the first focused on access to citizenship and the restoration of rights for the Rohingya, including freedom of movement, access to education and basic services, and to livelihoods; and the second on inclusive development aimed at improving the condition of all communities in Rakhine State, and on fostering peaceful co-existence.

Refugees must determine the timing and pace of returns; building their confidence is crucial. Implementing the Advisory Commission recommendations relating to central Rakhine would be a concrete first step. There, around 120,000 internally displaced people, mainly Rohingya driven from their homes by inter-communal violence, are now in their sixth year of confined encampment. Granting freedom of movement, allowing them to return home, and fast-tracking confirmation of their citizenship would send a strong signal to refugees in Bangladesh that Myanmar is genuinely committed to taking responsibility for their protection and well-being, and to pursuing lasting solutions.

As in the past, UNHCR stands ready to work with the Government in these efforts, through technical advice and support on securing solutions for the internally displaced, voluntary repatriation, and resolving statelessness.

Mr. President,

Addressing the root causes of the appalling violence and systemic discrimination that has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes repeatedly over decades, and securing solutions to the current crisis, will require substantial support to both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

International political engagement, technical expertise and financial resources will be needed on both sides of the border – including for humanitarian and targeted development activities. Preferential trade arrangements, labour and migration pathways, innovative financing, enhanced national partnerships, and expanded regional cooperation should also play a critical role.  

If solutions are successfully pursued, these have the potential to yield significant dividends across the wider region, helping prevent extremism, foster stability, and spur economic development.

Despite all that they have been through, Mr. President, Abdullah and his family are still holding on to a vision of a future back in Myanmar. ‘We want to go back,’ they say, ‘but we want the United Nations to accompany us... We want to go to the village we come from, the same place; we want our belongings and our land. We want our right to move around freely like other citizens.’

That call, Mr. President, must be heeded. It is time to bring an end to this repeated, devastating cycle of violence, displacement and statelessness to invest in tangible, substantial measures that will start to overcome the profound exclusion that Abdullah and the rest of the Rohingya community have endured for far too long. This is the responsibility of the Government of the Union of Myanmar. But international engagement and support are key to making it happen.