(UNITED NATIONS) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Myanmar’s authorities on Thursday to immediately end military operations that have sent over 500,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, calling the crisis “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
The U.N. chief warned that the humanitarian crisis is a breeding ground for radicalization, criminals and traffickers. And he said the broader crisis “has generated multiple implications for neighboring states and the larger region, including the risk of inter-communal strife.”
Guterres told the U.N. Security Council at its first open meeting on Myanmar since 2009 that government authorities must also allow “unfettered access” for humanitarian aid and ensure “the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return” of all those who sought refuge across the border.
The Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and persecution by the majority Buddhist population in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship despite centuries-old roots in the country.
The current crisis erupted Aug. 25 when an insurgent Rohingya group attacked police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, killing a dozen security personnel — an act that Guterres again condemned.
The attacks prompted Myanmar’s military to launch “clearance operations” against the rebels, setting off a wave of violence that has left hundreds dead, thousands of homes burned and the mass flight of Rohingya to Bangladesh.
Guterres previously called the Rohingya crisis “ethnic cleansing.” He didn’t use those words Thursday but he referred to “a deeply disturbing pattern to the violence and ensuing large movements of an ethnic group from their homes.”
Myanmar authorities insist security operations ended Sept. 5, but Guterres said that “displacement appeared to have continued, with reports of the burning of Muslim villages, as well as looting and acts of intimidation.”
The U.N. chief cited Rathedaung Township where three-quarters of the Rohingya population has fled and most villages and all three camps for displaced people have been burned to the ground.
The United Nations’ humanitarian office said Thursday that the number of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 has topped 500,000. U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq called it “the largest mass refugee movement in the region in decades.”
Bangladesh was already hosting thousands of Rohingya, and Haq said there are now believed to be “well over 700,000” Rohingya in the country.
“The failure to address this systematic violence could result in a spillover into central Rakhine, where an additional 250,000 Muslims could potentially face displacement,” Guterres warned.
Rohingya “are outnumbered by Rakhine communities, some of whom have engaged in violent acts of vigilantism against their Muslim neighbors,” he said.
Guterres also expressed deep concern at “the current climate of antagonism” by Myanmar authorities toward the United Nations and humanitarian groups that provide desperately needed aid. In the past few days, he said, the government has said repeatedly that “it was not the time” for unhindered humanitarian access to resume.
“It is imperative that U.N. agencies and our non-governmental partners be granted immediate and safe access to all affected communities,” he said.
As of Thursday, Haq said, the U.N. and its humanitarian partners have received $36.4 million — just under half of the $77 million that the U.N. called for in early September to address the Rohingya crisis. But he said that “the scale of the emergency has far surpassed initial projections and the needs are being revised” upward.
On the key issue of returning Rohingya to their homes, the secretary-general said, “The core of the problem is protracted statelessness and its associated discrimination.”
Guterres said Myanmar has committed to using a 1993 framework agreed to by the foreign ministers of Myanmar and Bangladesh to facilitate returns, but he told the council this isn’t sufficient.
“Notably, the framework does not refer to resolving the root cause of displacement,” he said. “And moreover, it requires documents that the fleeing Rohingya may not be able to provide.”
Guterres said all refugees in Bangladesh should be registered as “a critical first step.” He said the Muslims of Rakhine state “should be granted nationality” and urged Myanmar’s government to revise its citizenship legislation to ensure this.
In the interim, the secretary-general said those who are not entitled to citizenship according to the present laws must be able to obtain “a legal status that allows them to lead a normal life, including freedom of movement and access to labor markets, education and health services.”
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