COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - Bangladesh has begun preparations to repatriate an initial batch of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar on Thursday, but it is still unclear if any of them want to return, humanitarian officials said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in late October to begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, even though the United Nations’ refugee agency and aid groups say doubts persist about safety in Myanmar.
There are also concerns that the Rohingya don’t want to go back.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a sweeping army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, according to U.N. agencies. The Rohingya say soldiers and local Buddhists 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 of the allegations, saying security forces were battling terrorists. Attacks by Rohingya insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army preceded the crackdown.
The repatriation of the first group of 2,200 refugees is set to officially begin on Thursday and officials in Myanmar say they are ready for them.
Bangladesh has vowed not to not force anyone to return and it has asked the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to make sure those short-listed to return really want to go back.
Bangladeshi Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam said the UNHCR had begun interviewing families.
“We are expecting feedback from them today,” said Kalam.
When pressed on whether the process would begin on Thursday, Kalam said: “That is our plan, but we want to ensure a voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return.”
U.N. rights boss Michelle Bachelet called on Bangladesh on Tuesday to halt the repatriation plans, warning their lives would be at “serious risk”.
A UNHCR spokesman in Cox’s Bazar said the agency on Tuesday began to assess whether any of the refugees wanted to return. One source told Reuters the agency had yet to find a single family who wanted to go back.
“They are also not finding all the families on the list as many have fled to others camps,” the source added.
A second source said none of the 11 families interviewed had agreed to return. “Today is not too different,” the source told Reuters on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, dozens of Rohingya families on the list of refugees set to be repatriated began fleeing camps in Bangladesh.
Last week, more than 20 individuals on the list told Reuters they would refuse to return to Rakhine, saying they were terrified.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence expressed the Trump administration’s strongest condemnation yet of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya on Wednesday, telling leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Singapore that “persecution” by the Myanmar army was “without excuse”.
Suu Kyi, responding to Pence, said people had different points of view.
“In a way, we can say that we understand our country better than any other country does and I’m sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your country better than anybody else,” she added.
Reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Nick Macfie