Bangladesh did not begin planned Rohingya repatriations on Thursday because no refugees agreed to return to Myanmar, while hundreds protested in refugee settlements demanding justice and restoration of their citizenship rights in the neighboring country.
Rohingya chanted “We won’t go back,” as officials arrived with five buses and three trucks at the Unchiprang refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar to carry them and their belongings to the border.
“We could not start the repatriation today as the Rohingyas were not willing to go back voluntarily. We waited there ’til 4 p.m.,” Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission chief Md. Abul Kalam told BenarNews.
In Dhaka, Foreign Affairs Minister H. Mahmud Ali repeated assurances that Bangladesh would not repatriate any Rohingya by force, while adding that “efforts for their peaceful repatriation will continue.”
“Bangladesh will send a team to Rakhine state to observe how congenial the situation is for repatriation of Rohingya,” Ali told reporters at his office.
Bangladesh and Myanmar had agreed to start repatriating some 2,200 refugees “verified” by Myanmar officials as suitable for return, over the objection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and rights groups who warned their safety could not be guaranteed in Myanmar under current conditions.
The first group was to be sent Thursday, but it soon emerged that the Rohingya had not been consulted. Bangladesh officials said they had asked UNHCR officials to confirm whether the individuals wanted to return.
About 720,000 Muslim Rohingyas fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh following a military crackdown that began in August 2017. U.N. human rights investigators have accused Myanmar’s military of committing ethnic cleansing against the minority group.
Many residents of Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard Rohingyas as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations. Most of them have been denied citizenship and prevented from traveling outside Rakhine state.
‘We will be happy to go back’
Rallying next to the empty buses brought in to carry them to Rakhine state, Rohingya carried signs demanding citizenship, security, return of their homes and lands in Myanmar, as well as prosecution of people involved in violence against them.
“Most of the listed Rohingya have already fled,” Mohammad Yousuf, 40, a leader of the demonstrating refugees, told BenarNews. “We will not go back until our demands are fulfilled.”
“They have to give us Burmese citizenship, we don’t want anything else, and if they give us citizenship, then we will be happy to go back right now,” Rohingya Aman Ullah told BenarNews, referring to Myanmar by its old name.
Kalam spoke to reporters at midday at the Unchiprang camp, admitting that no Rohingya had volunteered to return thus far.
“You know we have all logistical preparations. The medical teams are also here to do the medical check-ups,” he said. “We also have the support, three days rations for them, and from the morning, actually, many people gathered here, including the ones who are on the list, cleared by the Myanmar side.”
“We also listened to them, they are actually asking for other basic things,” he said without elaborating.
Speaking to reporters in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement Win Myat Aye said Rohingya who wanted to return were being prevented from doing so.
“Those who wanted to come back were stopped or threatened in the refugee camps by those who do not want to. Some didn’t get the forms they are required to fill in and some were not allowed to fill in the forms,” he said. “Among those in the camps over there who said they wanted to return, some were threatened or beaten up and killed in some cases.”
He did not say what this assertion was based on.
"I do not want to blame anybody, it’s not my style. I’m just asking for cooperation from the Bangladesh government. All the ‘physical details’ of the arrangements have been spelled out and I just want to call on the Bangladeshi side to help implement them."
In Dhaka, an analyst said Bangladesh should expect Rohingya refugees to remain in the country for a long time.
“It has become clear that the Rohingya will not go back so easily. There will be a long-time presence of Rohingya in Bangladesh,” Delwar Hossain, director of the Center for Genocide Studies of Dhaka University, told BenarNews. “The international community needs to take a role for their repatriation.”
In a statement Thursday, Human Rights Watch urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation effort.
“The Myanmar authorities have done nothing to create conditions for safe and dignified returns or to address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and impunity for grave violations by the military,” the U.S.-based rights watchdog group said.
Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.