June 6 (UPI) -- Myanmar and the United Nations signed an agreement Wednesday to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims who fled the country during a government crackdown.
The memorandum of understanding signed in Yangon calls for the "voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable" return of some of the 700,000 Rohingya now living across the border in Bangladeshi refugee camps.
The two most crucial conditions for success of the pact are citizenship rights for the Rohingya, who have never been regarded as Myanmar citizens, and an end to violence, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Knut Ostby said.
"What makes it so special is the enormity of the challenge that people are living in impossible conditions on the other side [in Bangladesh], and this is an opening for us to start doing something about it," Ostby said.
While a timeline for the return of refugees to Myanmar's Rakhine state is not part of the agreement, Ostby added the mission will begin "almost immediately." The pact also does not address a path to citizenship in largely Buddhist Myanmar for the Rohingya minority.
A 2017 crackdown by Myanmar police and military authorities was described by the United Nations and the United States as an example of ethnic cleansing. It prompted an increase of refugee crossings into Bangladesh, where Rohingya live in squalid conditions.
The agreement gives two U.N. agencies access to areas in Rahkine they previously were banned from visiting.
While Ostby hailed the agreement as a "first and very important step," Mathew Smith of human rights organization Fortify Rights noted that it offered no promise of change.
"If they want to repatriate refugees they should start by shutting down the internment camps [in Rakhine State] and supporting Rohingya from those camps to rebuild their lives with dignity," Smith told NPR, adding that the Rohingya have not been offered citizenship or freedom of movement. "The government has done none of that."