None of the refugees are willing to return to Myanmar, the site of a brutal military campaign that forced them to flee to Bangladesh last year
Bangladeshi authorities called off the repatriation process of some Rohingya refugees, casting fresh doubts over a contentious repatriation program.
No one from the initial list of 2,260 Rohingyas wanted to go back to Myanmar, from where they fled a military crackdown in August last year and what UN investigators have recently called an "ongoing genocide."
It was planned that the repatriation will begin with 150 Rohingyas from this list. Bangladesh and Myanmar had earlier agreed, on October 30, for repatriation to begin from November 15.
In response to the call of UNHCR, the Bangladesh refugee authority provided the organization with the list of refugees selected for return, so it can ensure that the refugees consent to their repatriation.
On November 13, The UNHCR started interviewing the 2,260 refugees, consisting of 485 families. As of now, UNHCR has interviewed 50 families and are set to interview all the families. So far everyone expressed their unwillingness to go back.
Earlier, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) chief, Md Abul Kalam, told reporters that Rohingya repatriation will be called-off for the day if nobody volunteers by 4pm on Thursday.
"I have said in front of the whole world that we are firmly committed to the principle of non-refoulement and voluntary repatriation," Md Abul Kalam told the Dhaka Tribune on Thursday, after it decided to call off the process for the day.
When asked what the RRRC will do today, Kalam said that it will be later based on the situation.
The RRRC said they had been trying to encourage the Rohingyas from Unchipra Camp and Camp 15 in Ghundum to be repatriated, but none are willing. Bangladesh officials waited for hours at a border transit point, but not one of the refugees turned up.
Rohingya refugees, still haunted by memories of the Myanmar army’s crackdown, have refused to return to Rakhine State voluntarily.
With the United Nations and aid groups also fighting the repatriation program, Rohingya leaders said many on a Bangladesh repatriation list of 2,260 people had gone into hiding.
A reporter of the news agency AFP saw five buses waiting to carry volunteers to the border. They remained empty and about 1,000 Rohingya men, women and children took part in the demonstration against repatriations, shouting "we want justice".
The refusal casts doubt on the Bangladesh-Myanmar Joint Working Group’s efforts to repatriate the Rohingyas.
More than 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh from Rakhine State, since August last year, after Myanmar launched a brutal offensive targeting the mainly-Muslim ethnic minority.
Myanmar’s military used the August 25 militant attacks as the pretext for the drive, which the UN described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The number of Rohingyas killed during the crackdown is unclear but those, who made it to Bangladesh, brought along horrific tales of: murder, rape, torture, and arson.
Many vowed never to return to Myanmar—where they are denied basic rights and have been facing state-sponsored discrimination for decades.
Hundreds of them demonstrated near the Myanmar border shouting "we will not go" on the day the first batch were due to be sent back, reports AFP.
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RRRC’s Abul, and his colleagues, went to the border transit point for the repatriation that was scheduled to start at 2pm on Thursday.
However, none of the 150 Rohingyas who were supposed to return with the first group appeared.
About 1,000 Rohingya men, women, and children took part in Thursday’s demonstration against repatriation, shouting, "we want justice," according to AFP.
Tajul Mulluk, 85, who is on the repatriation list, said: "They killed two of my sons. I escaped to Bangladesh with two others. Please don't send us back. They will kill the rest of my family. I am too old to flee the camp."
The United Nations had urged Bangladesh to suspend the program, with rights chief Michelle Bachelet saying it would send the Rohingya "back to the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades."
Many of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar last year have recounted horrific tales of murder, rape and razed villages. The United Nations has said a genocide investigation is warranted.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said his team was "completely ready" to start sending back Rohingya but stressed that only volunteers would go.
"If we get anyone willing to go, we will carry them to the border point with respect and dignity."
Kalam said there would be no forced repatriation and acknowledged that the UNHCR refugee agency had found no family ready to go.
"None feels safe to go back now," Kalam was quoted as saying by the AFP.
The most recent influx of refugees joined the roughly 300,000 Rohingyas who had previously fled violence in Myanmar for camps around the Bangladesh city of Cox's Bazar.
It has left the poor South Asian nation struggling to cope with about one million Rohingyas.
UN agencies say they have received only a fraction of the billion-plus dollars needed to pay for their operations for the year.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in October last year to start repatriations.
But with Myanmar still refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing in its treatment of the Rohingyas, the operation has faced mounting opposition.
As deadline day loomed, Rohingya leaders said nearly all those on the repatriation list had fled to other camps and nearby hills.
A confidential UNHCR document, seen by AFP said the agency would only provide aid if returnees were allowed back to the villages they had left or to other locations chosen by them.
Amnesty International on Wednesday called the planned repatriation "reckless".