Boris Johnson has told Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi the UN refugee agency must be allowed to supervise the return of Rohingya refugees, saying it was clear many were terrified to return home.
The UK’s foreign secretary told reporters the charred homes of devastated Rohingya villages were like nothing he had seen before in his life, after visiting refugee camps in Bangladesh and northern Rakhine state in Myanmar.
In his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s state counsellor, Johnson said he stressed that refugees must feel safe returning home and must be supervised by UNHCR.
It is understood Johnson also raised the case of two Reuters journalists who have been detained for investigating a massacre in Rakhine.
The foreign secretary described seeing burnt-out homes and abandoned possessions, including a child’s bicycle, which he said had moved him greatly during his three-hour helicopter tour.
He said he had met terrified villagers who had refused to say who had burnt down their homes, but rejected Myanmar’s claims that the destruction was self-inflicted.
Johnson said the purpose-built reception centre he was escorted to see had received no returning refugees, despite being in place for months, and that it was surrounded by 10ft high barbed-wife fences. Those who wish to return to Myanmar have to undergo biometric logging before being housed in the centre.
The foreign secretary said he did not believe officials’ claims that no refugees had returned because the Bangladesh authorities had refused to return them. More than 1.1m Rohingya refugees are believed to have fled over the border to escape violence by Myanmar’s military.
“I saw real apprehension both in camps in Bangladesh and amongst the remaining villagers. There’s a lot of fear and that fear needs to be overcome,” he said. “The Burmese authorities need to work very hard with the international agencies to overcome that real alarm that people feel about coming back to Burma.
The FCO said Johnson’s hour-long meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi had been positive and constructive. A Nobel peace prize winner and former democracy activist, she has come under intense international criticism for her response to the violence against Rohingya.
She has said she believes reports of the violence to be exaggerated and has accused those who have raised concern of having an agenda. She and Johnson did not appear to reach agreement in their talks about the cause of the conflict, but a government source said they still hoped the UK could work with her on a solution.
Johnson said they had discussed the range of challenges facing the country. “I spoke to her about my own experience witnessing the terrible conditions of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and my deep concern about their future,” he said. “I encouraged her efforts to broker a nationwide peace settlement to put to an end 70 years of conflict in her homeland.”
Burmese authorities should carry out a full and independent investigation into the violence in Rakhine and create conditions that could make it a safe place for the Rohingya refugees to return, he said. They should be able to return “free from fear, and in the knowledge that their basic rights will be respected and upheld”.