The repatriation of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims appeared unlikely to proceed as planned Thursday after those who were eligible told the U.N. refugee agency and the Bangladeshi government they didn’t want to return to Myanmar unless their citizenship and safety were ensured.
“We have not found anybody yet who has agreed to go back, but all our preparations are in place,” said Khaled Hossain, a senior official with Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation commissioner’s office.
Members of at least 221 Rohingya families were interviewed this week ahead of the repatriation that was scheduled to start Thursday. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed said that her government would not force the refugees to return and that the repatriation will happen only if they are willing.
Myanmar has certified 3,450 refugees from 1,056 families as eligible for repatriation from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, where about 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltered.
Myanmar’s military began a harsh counterinsurgency campaign against Rohingya Muslims in August 2017 in response to an insurgent attack. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled what has been called an ethnic cleansing campaign involving mass rapes, killings and burning of thousands of their homes.
The United Nations refugee agency “is working with concerned governments to help create conditions conducive to return, to assess whether or not these people are going back voluntarily,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.
“The voluntary nature of repatriation is really a bedrock of our position,” he said.
Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, a former U.N. refugee chief, has stressed that it’s important for refugees to have the information they need to decide whether to return.
A repatriation attempt last November was suspended because no one was willing to go back. Thousands of refugees protested and chanted, “We won’t go back,” and “We want justice,” forcing authorities to halt the process.
This time, the camps have been quiet, with no reports of major protests ahead of Thursday’s plan.
Bangladeshi refugee commissioner Abul Kalam was happy with that.
“This is a good sign, and I think this is a good progress. Last year they fled their camp homes as the day neared, but this time they are coming forward and facing interviews and talking freely,” Kalam said Wednesday. “They have confidence in us.”
Kalim Ullah, a refugee on the repatriation list, said that his family wants to go back but that Myanmar must ensure they would be given citizenship and safety.
Many said they want to go back under direct U.N. supervision, not under the Myanmar government.
“We want to go back home. Bangladesh is not our country. But we still do not have any guarantee that we will not be tortured or killed,” Ullah said as he left the interview room.
Myanmar has long not recognized Rohingya as citizens, rendering them stateless, and they face other forms of state-sanctioned discrimination.
A U.N.-established investigation last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the crackdown on the Rohingya. Myanmar has rejected the report and any suggestion its forces did anything wrong.