Bangladesh on Thursday suspended the first planned phase of repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, officials said, citing a lack of volunteers.
The first phase of their return to Myanmar, from where hundreds of thousands of them fled from a military crackdown in 2017, was due to begin on Thursday, as per an agreement signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar on November 23 that year.
Dhaka and Naypyidaw had agreed to repatriate 2,251 refugees in the first batch. The process was expected to take two weeks with 150 people due to be transferred every day. The repatriation was to be done on voluntary basis.
“We waited here until 4 p.m. but no one came”, Bangladesh’s Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam told Efe news. “It was already getting dark and Myanmar is one hour ahead of us, so we suspended our activities. We will now analyse the situation before we decide the next course of action”.
Over 723,000 members of the mostly Muslim minority fled to Bangladesh escaping a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017.
International observers, including the UN, had urged Bangladesh to halt the plan, warning that the repatriation would violate international law and put the lives of the Rohingyas at serious risk.
Rohingya community leaders echoed those concerns, saying it was too soon to start the repatriation. “This repatriation is not going to be sustainable,” said Abdur Rahim, a leader of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. “They (Myanmar authorities) are going to keep people in camps,” he said.
Another community leader, Dil Mohammad, said the situation in Myanmar was not yet conducive for the refugees’ return. “We will go back only if the security of our life and livelihood is ensured.”
A UN report released in September said the military campaign against Rohingyas in Rakhine had elements of genocidal intent and experts had found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Myanmar classifies Rohingyas as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, denying them citizenship and imposing a number of restrictions, including limits on their freedom of movement.