COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) - A plan to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar stalled on Thursday, amid protests by refugees at camps in Bangladesh and recriminations between the officials in both countries.
The delay is a major setback for both nations and it leaves one of the world’s biggest refugee crises unresolved. Officials on both sides blamed each other for the lack of progress on the bilateral plan that had been agreed on in late October.
Bangladesh had begun preparations to repatriate an initial batch of 2,200 Rohingya to Myanmar on Thursday, but there have been extensive doubts about the plan. It has been opposed by Rohingya at camps in Bangladesh and the U.N. refugee agency and aid groups, who fear for the safety of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh protested on Thursday against any attempt to send them back, and by late afternoon no refugees had returned, Myanmar officials said.
Myanmar blamed Bangladesh for failing to bring any returnees but said it remained ready to accept them.
“To be honest, Bangladesh is weak in following the physical arrangement,” said Myint Thu, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s foreign affairs ministry, at a media briefing.
“We will accept them according to the agreement signed by the two countries. Whether they come back or not is their own decision,” said Myint Thu.
Unverified images on social media showed officials on the Myanmar side of the border waiting idle at a reception center.
Bangladesh has vowed not to force anyone to return and it has asked the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure those short-listed to return really want to go back.
Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam told Reuters on Thursday that his government had left no stone unturned.
“We made all preparations. Everything was ready: the transit camp, buses to carry them to border, medical facilities, rations for three days for the returnees,” said Kalam. “How they can say we are weak in physical arrangements? If Rohingya don’t want to return what can we do? We will not send them forcefully.”
Kalam called on the international community to put pressure on Myanmar to accept “some logical and acceptable demands,” in order for any repatriation to take place.
The Rohingya demand that Myanmar recognizes their ethnic identity, grants them citizenship and allows them to return to their original homes and lands.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya a native ethnic group and most are stateless. Many in the Buddhist-majority country call Rohingya “Bengalis”, suggesting they belong in Bangladesh.
Earlier on Thursday, Rohingya protesters chanted “No, no, we won’t go,” at the Unchiprang camp in southeast Bangladesh near the Myanmar border.
Some also waved placards that said “We want justice” and “We will never return to Myanmar without our citizenship.”
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a sweeping army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, according to U.N. agencies. The crackdown was launched in response to Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces.
The Rohingya refugees say soldiers and Buddhist civilians massacred families, burned hundreds of villages and carried out gang rapes. U.N-mandated investigators have accused the Myanmar army of “genocidal intent” and ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar denies almost all the accusations, saying its forces engaged in a counter-insurgency operation against “terrorists.”
U.N. rights boss Michelle Bachelet had called on Bangladesh this week to halt the repatriation plan, warning lives would be put at “serious risk”.
The U.N. human rights office continued to receive reports of ongoing violations against Rohingya in Myanmar including allegations of killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, Bachelet said.
Reporting by Ruma Paul, Shoon Naing and Thu Thu Aung; Writing by Euan Rocha and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Peter Graff