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'Deeply Disturbing' Conditions For Rohingya In Myanmar, And Those Yet To Return

The monsoon season is almost upon some of the world's largest refugee camps in Bangladesh. Heavy rains threaten to inundate and cause landslides on denuded hillsides in southeast Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, which the U.N. estimates is now home to more than 900,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees.

Many of them fled sectarian violence and military anti-insurgent operations — described by the U.S. and U.N. as ethnic cleansing — last year in western Myanmar's Rakhine State. The military operations followed insurgent attacks on police and army posts.It is widely acknowledged as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. And Myanmar holds the key to resolving it, humanitarian assistance groups and officials believe.

Myanmar's government says it is willing and ready to take the Rohingya back. But to many observers, conditions to make those returns "safe, voluntary and dignified," as aid workers advocate, appear to be a distant goal.

Even in Myanmar itself, thousands of Rohingya remain confined in internment camps. They are a stateless people. Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, but many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations.

"When we think about refugee returns anywhere in the world, a leading indicator is what's going on with the population that remains, and also the internally displaced," says Mark Storella, the deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. In most cases, he notes, refugees prefer to return to their original homes.

Storella was part of a delegation of U.S. officials that visited Myanmar and Bangladesh this month, in part to assess the feasibility of the Rohingya returning to Myanmar. The delegation was granted access to the northern part of Rakhine State, from which many of the Rohingya have fled, and where entire Rohingya villages were razed.

Myanmar authorities did not permit international journalists covering the delegation's trip, including from NPR, to accompany the delegation to the northern part of Rakhine state. But authorities allowed journalists to visit the Thet Kae Pyin internment camp for Rohingya outside Sittwe, the state capital.