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The U.N. and Burma signed a deal to resettle Rohingya refugees, but no one knows what’s in it

Rohingya refugees gather in the “no man's land” behind Burma's border with Bangladesh on April 25. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last week, the United Nations inked a deal with the government of Burma to begin the long process of resettling some of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled their homes for neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal military campaign last year.

The Burmese government promoted the agreement as proof that it is doing right by the Rohingya, a persecuted minority that is denied citizenship rights and freedom of movement in Burma. The United Nations has celebrated it as a major first step that would help secure the future of the Rohingya in Burma.

But no outside observers are able to verify the claims: The agreement has been kept unusually secret. 

The three parties that signed the memorandum of understanding — the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR; the U.N. Development Program; and the Burmese government — have declined to make the text of the agreement available to those who have asked to see it, including journalists, other U.N. officials and U.N. donor countries such as the United States.

Nongovernmental organizations, including Refugees International, have urged that the text be made public and warned in a statement that “conditions for Rohingya in Myanmar remain appalling,” referring to Burma by its official name. A statement from about two dozen Rohingya organizations across the world also raised concerns about keeping the text secret.

“All previous records showed that the U.N. agencies, including UNHCR as the agent of the interest of the international community, could not provide adequate protection to the Rohingya returnees due to obstinacy of the Myanmar government,” the groups said. “We are intrinsically aware of the false promises of the Myanmar authorities who are characterized by cheating and brutality.”

A Western diplomat closely following the negotiations said the United Nations has withheld the text of the agreement at the request of the Burmese government and called the lack of transparency “problematic.” The diplomat, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, spoke on the condition of anonymity. A spokesman for the Burmese government could not be reached to comment. 

In response to questions from The Washington Post, Knut Ostby, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma, said the UNHCR, the UNDP and Burma's government are in “discussion about publicly releasing the contents of the MoU.”

“Such a decision would require consent of all three parties,” he added.

The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya

Negotiations between the U.N. agencies and the Burmese government took about four months, with especially heated discussions about the issues of citizenship and identity for the Rohingya. Most Burmese, including Aung San Suu Kyi and other government officials, do not even use the term “Rohingya.” The U.N. news release on the resettlement agreement referred to the group as “refugees in Bangladesh.”

Ostby said in an interview before the signing of the agreement last week that both sides eventually agreed that the Rohingya need to have “an identity and need to exist as normal people.”

He also said that the agreement specifies that the Rohingya need to be able to live in safety and be provided basic services, including access to work and shelter. “We have requested and agreed that there should be a clear and predictable pathway to citizenship,” Ostby said.

But no details have been provided by the United Nations, which will not be handling the citizenship verification process, or the Burmese government. And a statement from Suu Kyi’s office on the repatriation agreement simply refers to the Rohingya community as “displaced persons” rather than using the word “Rohingya.”

In an interview with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Suu Kyi pointed to the agreement as a sign that Burma's government has “carried out all [their] responsibilities” toward the refugees, and she urged the international community to study its text — the same text that has not been made public.

The Rohingya refugees themselves doubt that the government can ensure their safety. Many fled amid atrocities that allegedly included rape, torture and extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Burmese military, carried out in response to attacks by a militant group on police posts in Rakhine state.

The United Nations has not negotiated with the refugees themselves on the terms of their resettlement but says it can do so now because it will be granted access to northern Rakhine, where the attacks occurred. The area was all but sealed off after the violence in August.

“We have not been in a position to negotiate with refugees before this, but UNHCR will now be in a position to have these conversations,” Ostby added.

Read more: 

Rohingya refugees who fled massacres in Burma face another lethal force: The monsoon

How the Rohingya crisis is affecting Bangladesh — and why it matters

Aung San Suu Kyi was a ‘bright light’ for some Rohingya. That dream is dead.