Bangladesh has delayed the repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar, set to start on Tuesday, because the process of compiling and verifying the list of people to be sent back is incomplete, a senior Bangladesh official said.
The decision comes as tensions have risen in camps holding hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of whom are opposing their transfer back to Myanmar because of what they say is a lack of guarantees of their security.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed earlier this month to complete the voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years, starting on Tuesday. Myanmar says it has set up two reception centres and a temporary camp near the border to receive the first arrivals.
But Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, said on Monday the return would have to be delayed.
"There are many things remaining," he told Reuters by phone. "The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps is remaining."
A Border Guard Bangladesh official said it could be months before the transfers begin.
The International Organization for Migration says the number of Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh since late August now stands at 688,000. The exodus began when the Myanmar military launched a crackdown following insurgent raids on security forces on August 25.
The head of the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, said more time was needed to prepare the return of the Rohingya refugees to Rakhine, and urged the two governments to involve it in their efforts to resolve the refugee crisis.
"In order for the repatriation to be right, sustainable, actually viable, you need to really to address a number of issues that for the time being we have heard nothing about, including the citizenship issue, the rights of the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, meaning freedom of movement, access to services, to livelihoods," Filippo Grandi told Reuters.
The UNHCR, which is helping to administer the refugee camps, is not involved in the repatriation process.
Grandi said it was especially important to set up a monitoring mechanism in northern Rakhine for the returning people.
The Rohingyas have long been denied citizenship by Myanmar, where many in the Buddhist majority regard them as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees stand in a queue to collect aid supplies in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, January 21, 2018 | Reuters
Myanmar said on Monday it was ready to take back the returning Rohingyas.
"We are ready to accept them once they come back. On our part, the preparation is ready," Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told Reuters by phone.
He declined to comment on whether Bangladesh had informed Myanmar about the delay.
At the Palongkhali refugee camp, near the Naf River that marks the border between the two countries, a group of Rohingya leaders gathered early on Monday morning with a loudspeaker and a banner listing a set of demands for their return to Myanmar.
These include security guarantees, the granting of citizenship and the group's recognition as one of Myanmar's official ethnic minorities. The Rohingyas are also asking that homes, mosques and schools that were burned down or damaged in the military operation be rebuilt.
Bangladesh army troops arrived at the camp and dispersed a crowd of at least 300 people who had gathered to listen to the leaders, according to witnesses who said they saw the army take away one of the Rohingya leaders.
Bangladesh Army spokesman Rashedul Hasan said he had not received any information about protests in refugee camps on Monday.
A Border Guard Bangladesh official said there would be no forced repatriation of the refugees to Myanmar and denied they would lose their food ration cards if they remained in the camps.
"This is out of the question. It will be voluntary. But this is not going to be an easy task to send them back as they are reluctant," the official in the border district of Cox's Bazar told Reuters.
Myanmar has said it would build a transit camp that can house 30,000 returnees before they are allowed to return to their "place of origin" or somewhere "nearest to their place of origin".
The country's state media reported over the weekend that authorities in Rakhine were making final preparations to take back the first batch of refugees.