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Politics

Rohingya crisis a tragedy of 'dramatic scale': UN refugee chief

Concern expressed over situation despite claims of improved conditions

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, center, addresses reporters Thursday.

UNITED NATIONS -- Myanmar's Rohingya crisis is a "human tragedy on a dramatic scale, the head of the U.N. refugee agency told the Security Council on Thursday, warning the international community that unabated violence has continued to send refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

"The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is now approaching 66 million, up from 42 million in 2009," said Filippo Grandi, high commissioner for refugees. "The sharp rise in forced displacement reflects weaknesses in international cooperation and declining capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflicts," he said.

Circumstances in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled from the northern part of Myanmar's Rakhine state, are a "stark illustration of what happens when the root causes of conflict and violence are not addressed and the relationship between a state and some of its people breaks down," said Grandi.

The Rohingya from Rakhine constitute "probably the most acute" current refugee crisis, Grandi suggested in a news briefing afterward. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, recently visited Rakhine.

"We have very incomplete visibility of what is happening in Rakhine, but people continue to come [to Bangladesh], so they don't feel safe there," Grandi told reporters, also calling for the restoration of humanitarian access and an end to the violence.

Some 607,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the country for neighboring Bangladesh since violence broke out Aug. 25 after attacks by insurgents on police outposts in Rakhine, according to figures from Grandi's office.

Myanmar authorities assert that the military operations -- a response to the August attacks -- have long since ended. But reports of ongoing violence and the continuing stream of Rohingya across the border have clouded claims of stability and cast doubt on the government's promise to allow refugees safe return to their homes.

"Of course, for people to go back and for this return to be sustainable, you need to address the very complex issue of citizenship," Grandi said. A Muslim minority in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya are seen by the government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied legal status. "I don't even know if any return will happen in any significant number if that issue is not unblocked," the commissioner said.

Security, respect for human rights, and progress on resolving the long-standing problem of Rohingya statelessness are essential to creating the conditions for their safe return, Grandi said. The Security Council "has a particular responsibility" in addressing the causes of conflict, said Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the U.N., on Thursday morning ahead of Grandi's briefing.

A draft resolution recently circulated to the council's 15 members by France and the U.K. would seek to assert "maximum pressure" on the Myanmar authorities through "three key priorities: to stop violence, to help humanitarian aid get through, and to prepare for the return of refugees," Delattre said before heading into the meeting.

"France will remain fully mobilized alongside the U.K. and its partners to deliver a robust response from the council," Delattre said in remarks to the body.

"It is high time to translate our words into action, and in the face of the ethnic cleansing which is continuing before our very eyes, this is urgent," he said.

For the resolution to pass in its current form, it will need to be supported, or at least not vetoed, by the council's five permanent members of France, the U.K., the U.S., China and Russia.

China, a backer of Myanmar's military, has long sought to keep the Southeast Asian nation off the council's agenda, urging countries to give the government space to deal with its own affairs internally.

"The international community, in handling matters related to refugees, should uphold the principle of objectivity and neutrality, avoid interference in the internal affairs of the countries in question, and prevent the politicization and abuse of international refugee protection mechanisms," said Wu Haitao, deputy ambassador to the U.N., at the meeting Thursday.

"The government of Myanmar is now working actively to ease the tension in the Rakhine state, and the situation there is now moving towards stability," Wu said, suggesting that Bangladesh and Myanmar were now moving to resolve the refugee issue themselves.

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