The United Nations refugee agency helped officials from Myanmar's junta travel to Bangladesh this week for repatriation talks with Rohingya refugees, two UN officials told AFP, despite maintaining that conditions in the country remain unsafe for their return.
Bangladesh has provided shelter to over a million Rohingya, most of whom fled neighbouring Myanmar following a 2017 military crackdown, now subject to a UN genocide investigation.
On Wednesday a 17-member team led by a senior official in Myanmar's immigration ministry arrived in the border town of Teknaf to interview refugees for potential repatriation to Myanmar.
A UNHCR spokesperson in Myanmar told AFP on Thursday that UNHCR had "facilitated the transport of some officials" from Myanmar to Bangladesh "in support of interaction between the de facto authorities in Myanmar and refugees."
The transport had been facilitated by both UNHCR and the World Food Programme in Myanmar, who had provided boats for the junta officials to travel in, a senior UN official in Bangladesh told AFP on Friday.
"I can confirm that UNHCR and WFP provided boats to junta officials to come," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This month Johannes van der Klaauw, UNHCR's representative in Bangladesh, said there was "no prospect for a safe, dignified and sustainable return in the immediate future," for Rohingya seeking to come back to Myanmar.
UN markings removed
The Rohingya are widely viewed in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh and rights groups say those still in the country are denied access to healthcare and education, and require permission to travel.
Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who was head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown, has dismissed the Rohingya identity as "imaginary".
The UNHCR spokesperson said the decision was made "within the framework" of a non-binding memorandum of understanding signed with Myanmar in 2018, aimed at "creating the conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees."
UN agencies were not involved in the discussions that took place in Bangladesh, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson did not give details on how many boats had been provided, or whether members of the Myanmar military, police or security forces had ridden in the boats.
The UN provided boats for the journey to Bangladesh after a "very firm request" by junta officials, and the UN markings were removed prior to the journey, according to a leaked email from UNHCR's resident coordinator in Myanmar seen by AFP.
The UNHCR spokesperson did not elaborate on the nature of the "very firm request" from the junta for the boats.
The delegation from Myanmar had planned to interview more than 700 Rohingya to assess the suitability of their return to Myanmar, an official from the commission said.
A Myanmar junta spokesman confirmed to AFP the trip was taking place but would not give details.
A repatriation plan agreed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017 has failed to make any significant headway in the years since, partly over concerns the Rohingya would not be safe if they returned.
Progress ground to a complete halt during the coronavirus pandemic and after the military ousted Myanmar's civilian government in 2021.