The return of the displaced Rohingya refugees to Myanmar should take place only at their "freely expressed wish", the UN's top refugee official said, amid concern that conditions at their places of origin are not conducive.
According to the UN estimates, nearly 700,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State since August 25 last year when the army launched a military crackdown.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement Sunday that repatriation of refugees "is premised upon the free and informed decision by refugees... to return".
Since late August 2017, widespread and systematic violence against Myanmar's mainly-Muslim minority Rohingya community has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in Rakhine State and seek refuge across the country's border in Bangladesh.
Prior to that, well over 200,000 Rohingya refugees were sheltering in Bangladesh due to earlier displacements.
According to the latest estimates, there are currently some 925,000 Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh.
"Returns should only take place at their freely expressed wish based on relevant and reliable knowledge of the conditions within the country of origin and the area of return," Grandi said, noting that the "best way" to provide that knowledge to allow refugees "to go and see the conditions in Myanmar for themselves".
"Before making a choice of whether to return or not, the refugees reportedly verified by Myanmar as having the right to return should be allowed to visit their places of origin in the Rakhine state, or other places to which they might choose to return," he said.
About 4,355 people have been placed on a list approved for return by Myanmar. However, not everyone on the list has been informed and it is unclear how it was compiled. The first repatriations are said to start on Thursday.
Grandi also said that the responsibility rests with Myanmar to ensure that conditions are conducive for voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return from Bangladesh.
At present, these conditions are not there, Grandi said, adding that his office UNHCR "remains committed" to supporting Myanmar's efforts to create such conditions under the terms of a tripartite agreement signed by the UNHCR, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Myanmar in June.
An Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, established by the UN Human Rights Council, has concluded that violence against the Rohingya community by Myanmar's security forces amounted to "the gravest crimes under the international law" and called for referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or to an ad hoc tribunal for investigations and prosecutions.