No Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have agreed to return to Myanmar under a proposed repatriation scheme scheduled to begin Thursday, a Bangladesh official said, as the governments of the two countries scrambled to keep the plan afloat.
Some 150 refugees from 30 families who were supposed to be the first to repatriate had refused to return, the official said, citing feedback from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"The UNHCR said no Rohingya families agreed to return. So, the repatriation is unlikely to start," an official with the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRRC), speaking on condition of anonymity, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, late Wednesday (Bangladesh time).
Under an agreement between the two countries, Bangladesh was to hand over the first batch of potential returnees from among 2,260 initially identified for repatriation to Myanmar at a transit point along their common border.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, the chief of the commission, said it had not yet finalized the list of refugees slated for repatriation, but he stopped short of saying the scheduled repatriation had been put off.
"Tomorrow [Thursday] we will come to know who will return," Kalam told reporters after the UNHCR handed over a report assessing the repatriation exercise. He declined to share the report's findings, which included the opinions of refugees slated for repatriation.
A Bangladeshi official told BenarNews earlier in the week that Bangladesh would only repatriate Rohingyas endorsed by the U.N. refugee agency as willing to go voluntarily.
Kalam said the plan was for returnees to cross the border via the Ghandung border crossing in Naikhongchhari, in Bandarban district.
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 accused Myanmar's military of committing ethnic cleansing.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had warned this week that refugees who had been identified for repatriation were gripped with "terror and panic" on hearing they would be asked to return against their will.
Some of those chosen for repatriation have gone into hiding within the refugee camps at Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar border district where a small refugee city has emerged following the influx of Rohingyas.
'If five people agree, we will send them'
Still, Myanmar and Bangladesh officials were trying hard to keep the repatriation plans alive.
Myint Thu, the permanent secretary of Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said officials were meeting with UNHCR at the capital Naypyidaw to find ways to launch the repatriation.
Myanmar officials have promised those who return that they would get a National Verification Card allowing them to travel in the Maungdaw area of Rakhine state, as part of a process for them to apply for citizenship.
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.
Mohammed Juha, a refugee leader from the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh, said he did not want to return because the Myanmar authorities continue to discriminate against the Rohingyas.
A coordinator with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "asked me whether we would return to Myanmar or not [and] I told him that [Myanmar officials] had asked only Bengalis to return but not Rohingyas," Juha said.
"We are Rohingya and we will return only if we are recognized as citizens," he told Radio Free Asia.
Khin Maung, another refugee, based at Thangkhali Refugee Camp, asked, "Who would want to return without any guarantee?"
"Myanmar government's [dealings] have no transparency. Myanmar officials said we have to live in a reception center for a month [on our return]. We don't trust them," he told RFA.
The Bangladesh official, who spoke to BenarNews on condition of anonymity, said both Bangladesh and Myanmar wanted some of the Rohingyas to return as soon as possible so others would follow suit.
"If we can send one or two batches of them, others will be encouraged to go back," the official said.
Delwar Hossain, the director general in charge of the Southeast Asia desk at the Bangladesh foreign ministry, told BenarNews that Myanmar could take up to 150 refugees every day if the repatriation plan was implemented.
"But we can start the repatriation with less than that number. If five people agree, we will send them. If 10 people agree, we will send 10 people," Hossain said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, and by Htet Arkar for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translation by Khet Mar.
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