By Poppy McPherson
YANGON (Reuters) – The United Nations is awaiting “effective access” to the Myanmar region where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims were driven out in an army crackdown, months after agreeing with the government to aid the return of refugees, the U.N. country head said on Tuesday.
The organisation’s agencies for development and refugees – UNDP and UNHCR – signed a memorandum of understanding with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in June to allow Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh last year to return home.
But requests for authorisations for staff to visit the conflict area have been beset by delays and authorities have offered access to a limited area, Knut Ostby, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, told Reuters.
Ostby said the United Nations had declined to accept an offer from the government to work in a limited number of villages and would not send in experts until it had negotiated a better deal.
“They’re standing ready to go when we have effective access,” he said.
“We need to have the possibility to do a proper job.”
His comments came despite an announcement from Suu Kyi on Tuesday that her government had “granted access” to the United Nations to work in 23 villages across northern Rakhine State as part of a “pilot assessment programme”.
The United Nations wants to implement “quick impact projects” to benefit the population still there, including cash-for-work schemes and small-scale infrastructure projects.
Ostby said he did not know how the 23 villages, spread out across Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, had been selected.
The United Nations wanted to work in villages next to one another, he said, to avoid the risk of creating “inequality among neighbouring villages”.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said the United Nations could work within the selected areas first and then expand its operations.
“As far as I understand, UNDP is to implement pilot project within the allowed villages and extend afterwards,” Zaw Htay said. “If UNDP does not think it’s enough, they would have to discuss with the government.”
The United Nations as been mostly barred from northern Rakhine State since August last year, when the government accused U.N. agencies of supplying food to Rohingya militants.
The Rohingya, who regard themselves as native to Rakhine state, are widely considered as interlopers by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and are denied citizenship.
The June deal between the United Nations and the government was not made public, but a draft was seen by Reuters and also leaked online last month.
Refugee leaders and human rights groups said the deal failed to give assurances that returning refugees would be granted citizenship and freedom of movement.
Ostby said the United Nations had advocated for the release of the memorandum of understanding.
“We have proposed to the government that it would be a good idea to make it public,” he said. “Having said that, we recognise that such agreements are not normally publicised in other countries.”
(Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon and Shoon Naing; Editing by Robert Birsel)