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.’
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.