About 25,000 refugees from the Rohingya Muslim minority group have started to leave camps for displaced people in western Myanmar and return to their communities after fleeing during conflicts in 2012, said United Nations on Monday.
145,000 refugees were being hosted in Rakhine State, located in the west coastal side of Myanmar, but this number has fallen to around 120,000 after some 25,000 refugees returned to their homes, said Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency.
The majority of people in Rohingya who have left the camps have rebuilt houses in their place of origin, Tan said in an e-mailed statement to Reuters. The move out of the camps started in March 2015 in a process led by the Myanmar government, she added.
Myanmar is located southwest of China between Bangladesh and Thailand.
"These movements are a positive step toward ending displacement, cutting humanitarian dependency as well as restoring a degree of normality and dignity to people's lives," she said.
That step will raise optimism among ethnic communities in Myanmar following the formation of the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) after military rule since the army seized power in 1962.
The NLD won a landslide electoral win in November and is forming a government to take power on April 1.
"It is striking, there are many less people coming than last year," Volker Turk, assistant high commissioner for protection at the UNHCR, told Reuters on Monday after an event on refugees in Bangkok.
"It's a combination of factors. As well as the new government, there are stronger activities against smuggling and trafficking. And the discovery of the mass graves last year also shocked people."
The number of refugees has fallen sharply this year in comparison to previous years, the UN said.
The number of camps for displaced people has fallen to 40, down from 67, she added.
Humanitarian Tragedy of Rohingya Muslims
Persecutions have forced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee western Myanmar since religious violence erupted there in 2012, prompting international calls for investigation into what some called "strong evidence" of genocide.
That conflict nearly resulted in 200 deaths of Rohingya Muslims and the displacement of 140,000 people. Incidents of violence against Rohingya individuals continued from 2013 to 2015.
Scores of them were smuggled or trafficked to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond.
Thai police also launched an investigation in May 2015 in the wake of the discovery of 30 bodies in graves near a human-trafficking camp located around the Malaysian border.
The crackdown led criminals to abandon ships at sea with thousands of refugees aboard.
Mass graves of suspected human-trafficking victims were also revealed on the Malaysian side of the border.
Thai and Bangladeshi crackdowns on human smugglers damaged the networks that brought refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh by sea to Thailand and Malaysia.
The Rohingya people still faced challenges due to lack of citizenship and related restrictions in Myanmar and other countries of asylum.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) is forming a government that will take power on April 1, but she and the NLD have been criticised for saying little about how they will address the Rohingya people's situation in Rakhine State where about 140,000 people remain in camps.
The US State Department said on Monday it had determined that Myanmar is persecuting its Rohingya Muslims, but the government's treatment of the religious minority group does not constitute genocide.
"While it's without question that they continue to face persecution, we did not determine that it was on the level of genocide," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
The United Nations hoped political change in Myanmar would allow those refugees, some of whom have lived in Thailand for decades, to return home.