In a statement released on Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency said no one agreed to go back to Myanmar, adding that its staff will continue to interview those cleared for return.
An attempt to begin repatriating thousands of Rohingya Muslims living in refugee camps in Bangladesh never got off the ground on Thursday after nearly 300 families refused to go back to Myanmar, almost a year after a similar effort failed amid protests.
Last week, the two countries agreed that on Aug. 22 they, along with the United Nations, would start to return 3,450 people already cleared by Myanmar. It's a start to the more than 730,000 who fled a military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017, and who have been sheltered in the sprawling camps at the border since then.
The U.N. says the crackdown in Myanmar’s western region was carried out with “genocidal intent.” Although Myanmar authorities say they are ready to receive any who return, refugees have refused to go back for fear of further violence.
“I was so sad, so worried about going back to Myanmar,” said 32-year-old Sayedul Haque, who discovered his name on the list for repatriation but refused to go. “I felt afraid of the Myanmar government, as though I was back there.”
Since the plan was announced, U.N. staff and Bangladesh officials have been interviewing those cleared for return, selected from more than 22,000 names sent by Bangladesh to Myanmar, to determine if they want to go.
None of the 295 families consulted so far have agreed to go back, said a Bangladesh relief official, Mohammad Abul Kalam, although buses and trucks have been arranged to carry them across the border.
“This is a continuous process,” Kalam, who is Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Reuters.
“We are interviewing other families who were cleared by the Myanmar government and if anyone expresses willingness to go back we’ll return them. All structural arrangements and logistical facilities are put in place,” said the official by phone.
Min Thein, director of Myanmar’s social welfare ministry, told Reuters that officials had been sent to greet any arrivals at reception centers on the border on Thursday morning.
The director of Rakhine state’s general administration department, Kyaw Swar Tun, declined to comment.
The U.N. and countries around the world acknowledge that the August 2017 military crackdown included mass killings, gang-rapes and burning of villages.
Myanmar has previously rejected the U.N.’s categorisation of the violence in Rakhine as “one-sided.” It says that military action that followed militant attacks on security forces was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.
Previous attempts to persuade Rohingya to return to Rakhine last November also failed due to outright opposition from the refugees.
On Thursday morning, refugees in Camp 26, home to many of those cleared to return, said neighbors who found they were on the list refused to go for interviews at the office of the government official in charge.
Some left the camp for fear they would be forced to return to Myanmar, they said.
“They fled from their homes by locking their doors,” said Fayez Ullah, 25. “People were hiding,” said one of the camp refugee leaders.
Many refugees say they want to return home, but under specific conditions, including guarantees of citizenship and security and improvements in the lives of Rohingya still in Myanmar.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya remain in Rakhine state, confined to camps and villages, mostly denied citizenship and subject to tight restrictions on movement.
Although many Rohingya can trace their ancestry in Myanmar back centuries, they are widely denigrated in the country as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Knut Ostby, the head of the U.N. in Myanmar, told Reuters Thursday that Rakhine is not ready for any significant returns.
“There could be safety, there could be a proper life… for people who come back,” he said. “But the situation is not there yet.”
He said the focus should be on trying to restore “dignified and full, proper lives” to Rohingya still in Myanmar.
“They will need to have safety,” he said. “They will need to have access to livelihoods and social services, they will need to have the freedom to move around. They will need to have a predictable path toward citizenship.”
Amnesty International also warned on Thursday that it was still unsafe for members of the Rohingya ethnic minority to return to Myanmar.
“Bangladesh and Myanmar’s recent proposal to repatriate thousands of Rohingya has triggered widespread fear in the refugee camps. Memories of murder, rape and torched villages are still fresh in the minds of Rohingya refugees,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia.
“With Myanmar’s military as powerful and remorseless as ever, it remains unsafe for anyone to return to Rakhine,” Bequelin added in a statement.
“The situation for the Rohingya and Myanmar’s other persecuted ethnic minorities will never improve until Myanmar’s military faces justice for its appalling crimes,” Bequelin stressed, calling for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo.