WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS: The United States and the United Nations today insisted on safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar.
Over 655,000 Myanmar's Muslim minority fled across the border to Bangladesh since the Myanmar army launched a crackdown on Rohingya rebels in northern Rakhine state on August 25.
Though Myanmar authorities said that the campaign was aimed at rooting out Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on August 25 but the UN and the US have said the violence amounts to ethnic cleansing.
According to the Red Cross estimates only about 300,000 Rohingya remain in the entire state.
"The timeline is less important to us than the ability for people to safely and voluntarily go home when it is safe to do so," State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters at a news conference.
She said that the US does not want people to be pushed back into their homes or their communities when they do not feel that it is safe.
"That's completely counterproductive," Nauert said while responding to a question on the agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the repatriation of the Rohingyas.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have reached a deal on the return of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas that sidelined the UN refugee agency.
According to the agreement, which was finalised in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw this week, a two-year deadline has been set for the repatriation of the Rohingya.
"They don't want that, we don't want that, the nations don't necessarily want that either. So it has to be safe and voluntary," she said.
Nauert said religious freedom, which is taken for granted in the US is under serious attack throughout the world.
"In Myanmar, Rohingyas have been the victims of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Myanmar's security forces and also local vigilantes.
"Across South Asia, members of religious minorities experience societal discrimination and violence which is exacerbated by laws and policies that punish speech, restrict religious conversions, or ban certain beliefs," she said, adding that protecting and promoting religious freedom is a priority of this Trump administration.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also insisted on safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees.
"What is essential on this is to make sure that the return is voluntary; it is in safety and dignity and that people are allowed to come back to their places of origin, which means that the huge effort of investment, because there is a lot of reconstruction to be done, and a huge effort of reconciliation is needed to allow it to take place properly," Guterres told reporters.
The worst, he said, would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in Myanmar, keeping an artificial situation for a long time and not allowing for them to regain their normal lives.
"We will be, of course, ready to do everything possible, to support a movement taking place, as I said, based on voluntariness, safety, dignity, and in respect to international standards," he said, adding that the UN or its UNHRC was not involved in the agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar on the issue.
In relation to the agreement, the UN Secretary General said, usually, this is dealt with in trilateral agreements between the two states concerned and the UNHCR.
"The UNHCR was not involved directly in the management of the agreement even if they were consulted. And we believe it would be very important to have UNHCR fully involved in the operation to guarantee that the operation abides by international standards," Guterres said.