The senior U.N. official for human rights said Tuesday that it is impossible to safely send Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh back to Myanmar because widespread and systematic violence appears to be continuing against them in Myanmar, amounting to "ethnic cleansing."
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour said in a statement that during a four-day visit to Bangladesh, refugees told him "credible accounts of continued killings, rape, torture and abductions, as well as forced starvation" in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine. Myanmar's government denies such abuses and announced in January that it was ready to accept the refugees back.
"Safe, dignified and sustainable returns are of course impossible under current conditions," Gilmour said.
Some 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh since late August, when Myanmar security forces began sweeps through Rakhine after attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group. There are credible accounts of widespread human rights abuses, including rape, the torching of homes and killings, carried out against the Rohingya, leading to accusations that Myanmar is guilty of "ethnic cleansing," or even genocide.
Gilmour said the rate of killings and sexual violence in Rakhine has subsided since August and September last year, but "It appears that widespread and systematic violence against the Rohingya persists."
"The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied blood-letting and mass rape of last year to a lower intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation that seems to be designed to drive the remaining Rohingya from their homes and into Bangladesh," he said.
Myanmar's government has built two reception camps and a transition camp for Rohingya refugees in northern Rakhine, but Gilmour, like most human rights advocates, says it is unsafe now to repatriate the Rohingya.
"The conversation now must focus on stopping the violence in Rakhine state, ensuring accountability for the perpetrators, and the need for Myanmar to create conditions for return," said Gilmour.
Myanmar's government spokesman did not answer repeated calls for comment on Gilmour's statement.
Last week, Myanmar's army deployed additional security forces to the border with Bangladesh, with the apparent aim of driving about 6,000 Rohingya refugees staying in a no man's land into Bangladeshi territory.
"We have been told by Rohingya who fled from the no man's land that the security forces have been threatening them by shooting guns in the air, throwing stones at them and shouting at them to get out of the area," said Ko Ko Lin, a Rohingya activist in Bangladesh.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed its concern over the situation.
"UNHCR is urging the authorities to ensure the safety of the group currently in no man's land," UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said Tuesday.
"These people have fled violence at home and must be able to seek asylum in Bangladesh if they feel unsafe where they are," she said. "In the same way, those who wish to return to Myanmar have the right to do so when they feel the time and circumstances are right. We've asked Myanmar for humanitarian access in order to help people like them and others affected by the recent violence."