Myanmar has lifted travel restrictions on Rohingya Muslims with Nationally Validated Cards (NVCs), a government minister said on Thursday, adding that cardholders can obtain full citizenship “within five months”.
Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Minister Win Myo Ay told reporters at the National Reconciliation and Peace Center in Yangon that Rohingya IDPs fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state had to accept the NVC and fill out a relevant immigration form.
“We are working to ensure that NVC holders have freedom of movement,” he said, although he acknowledged there were “problems” with providing cards to refugees and said he was discussing with relevant ministries how to “speed up the process”.
“When NVC holders want to travel, they just need to fill out immigration form 4 and submit it to immigration officials. After that, they can go wherever they want.”
Rohingya refugees and IDPs consider the NVC (which the Myanmar government says they must accept to become citizens) unnecessary and instead demand citizenship because they claim their ancestors are Myanmar nationals. The Rohingya are an unrecognized ethnicity in Myanmar.
Win Myat Aye urged refugees to accept the NVC, noting that anyone with the card “can apply for citizenship and can become a citizen within five months”.
“We’ve had a lot of people become citizens within five months,” he added.
Meanwhile, nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled violence in Rakhine state in August 2017 to refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, despite Bangladesh and Myanmar reaching a repatriation agreement in November. The agreement calls for the process to begin in late January, but the two countries have yet to repatriate any Rohingya.
Earlier this year, Bangladeshi authorities provided their counterparts with a list of 8,000 Rohingya for Myanmar to verify. Only a few hundred were authorized to return, and no one started the process.
Win Myat Aye noted that he visited the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar last week to “understand the reasons for the delay in the refugee repatriation process”.
“We see reasons, such as filling out forms incorrectly, making it difficult for Myanmar immigration officials to identify refugees,” he said.
“I met with Bangladesh’s foreign and interior ministers to discuss further coordination with them to overcome difficulties in the repatriation process.”
According to the RFA-affiliated BenarNews service, Win Myat Aye and his entourage visited Kutupalong under tight security on April 11, while Bangladeshi police used batons to disperse more than 200 protesters who had gathered on the camp’s main road.
He called the visit – during which he told refugees he was trying to repatriate them as soon as possible – a success, but participants said there was no reason for them to return to Rakhine if they were forced to live in camps as the government said like that.
An official at the Dar Paing Muslim refugee camp in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, Den Mae, told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that the Rohingya IDPs would welcome the end “if travel restrictions are indeed lifted.”
But he echoed other members of the group’s dissatisfaction with the citizenship restrictions, saying they shouldn’t have asked for the NVC in the first place.
“If our parents have a National Registration Card (NRC), we should have the same rights as them,” he said, referring to documents proving their holders are Myanmar citizens.
Kyaw Hla Aung, a former Rakhine MP and leader of the Rohingya community in Sittwe, told Radio Free Asia that he also applauds the end of restrictions, but wonders if authorities will provide safety for members of his ethnicity as they travel across the country, There they face discrimination and community violence.
“The most important thing is to have the rule of law… We will have to wait and see how the authorities manage,” he said.
Also on Thursday, Ursula Mueller, deputy emergency relief coordinator at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters in New York that movement restrictions on Rohingya in Rakhine state were limiting their access to key opportunity to serve. Recently visited Myanmar.
“There is a humanitarian crisis on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border that is affecting the largest stateless population in the world,” Mueller said.
“The ongoing tragedy in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp [Bangladesh] Rightfully brought to the world’s attention, but we cannot and must not forget the plight of the more than 400,000 Muslims still living in Rakhine State who continue to face difficult and marginalized lives due to movement restrictions,” she added.
She said the restrictions severely undermined their rights and hindered their access to health, livelihoods, protection, education and other essential services.
Mueller, who is also the UN assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that during a meeting with Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi on April 3, the two discussed “an end to violence, stability and peace.” and Reconciliation” in Rakhine State and other parts of the country.
She also provides support to the United Nations to “address humanitarian and protection needs across the country and advocate for humanitarian actors to come in,” she said.
Reporting by Aung Theinka and Thinn Thiri. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.