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The Future Of Myanmar's Rohingya Refugees

There are increasing concerns over a plan to send a group of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar beginning this week. A deal was reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where more than 600,000 refugees fled. Yet United Nations and humanitarian groups say the move is premature and that the conditions that led to ethnic cleansing still exist. Joining me in the studio is Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former assistant secretary of state. Welcome to the program, sir.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Pleasure to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the Rohingya have faced rape, forcible displacement, other atrocities in Myanmar, which is what forced them to flee to Bangladesh in the first place. In the past few days, Rohingya Muslims have continued, though, to pour across the border into Bangladesh. Why are the two countries talking about returning refugees to Myanmar if people are still fleeing violence?

SCHWARTZ: Why they're talking about it is because they feel they have to talk about it. The government of Bangladesh wants the bulk of these people to return. They also would be feeling some domestic pressures in this area, as well. And the government of Burma, I think, is feeling some of the pressure from the international community and feels some need to be responsive. But the real story here is this is horrifying, this discussion, to be taking place right now, given the complete absence of measures in place to ensure safety and security upon return.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As I understand it, the Rohingya, according to this agreement, will be moved from the camps in Bangladesh to a camp in Myanmar where there could be security concerns.

SCHWARTZ: Oh yeah, there are no safeguards in place. There - been no serious discussion of safeguards for return. You have to realize that we're talking about one of the greatest crimes in recent memory - massive abuses, forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's problems, obviously, with monitoring the situation. The government won't let - of Myanmar - won't let international monitors in. And, in fact, the top U.N. official responsible for human rights was barred from the country. Is that right?

SCHWARTZ: Yanghee Lee, the U.N.'s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, has been denied entry. A U.N. fact-finding mission has been denied entry. If there was going to be a return - and this is premature - but if there was going to be a return, there would have to be some sort of international monitoring in place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Myanmar sees most of the Rohingya as illegal migrants who originally came from Bangladesh generations ago. Bangladesh does not want them either. We're seeing a new generation growing up in refugee camps. In many ways, they are stateless people. Bangladesh is not giving newborns, for example, documents to show that they have any status at all in the country. So what is the way forward?

SCHWARTZ: The bottom line is they - Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries. They have legitimate claims to citizenship there. And the notion that they're stateless or somehow they are kind of an alien people is nonsense. It is nonsense. It is a myth perpetrated by the authorities in Myanmar. So yeah, the government of Bangladesh should have policies that are tolerant and willing to take care of the Rohingya for as long as they need to be taken care of. But the culprit here is the government and the military in Myanmar.

The government of Bangladesh needs to do what it is doing, and it needs to do more. And the international community needs to assist the government of Bangladesh. But ultimately, the solution for these people should be a solution in Myanmar. Until that's possible, the international community and the government of Bangladesh have a responsibility to provide these people with the refuge they deserve.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International. Thank you so much.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you.

(c) 2018 NPR

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