More time is needed to prepare the return of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, the United Nations refugee chief said yesterday, after a Bangladeshi official said the plan to begin it today had been delayed.
The Rohingya have always been denied citizenship by Myanmar, where many in the Buddhist majority regard them as interlopers from Bangladesh.
The Associated Press quoted Abul Kalam, Bangladesh refugee and repatriation commissioner, saying that a number of issues remain unresolved.
Authorities said repatriations would be voluntary.
"Although the Bangladesh government hasn't contacted us regarding refugees' return, we have to continue working on the agreement Bangladesh and Myanmar have reached", Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's office, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. However, the process has instead proven to be chaotic, with many Rohingya refugees left fearing they could be forced to return to the very same villages they fled in fear just months earlier. Bangladesh, anxious that the Rohingya refugees could settle in the country permanently, likely agreed even though it knew the targeted start date was unrealistic.
Bangladesh's decision to "postpone" Rohingya repatriation had given the refugees "temporary relief", global rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a statement Monday. But on Monday, refugee chief Kalam said transit centres still needed to be built, and work remained to be done on the "rigorous process" of approving lists of those entitled - and willing - to return to Myanmar.
Amid worldwide criticism for alleged forceful eviction of refugees from Bangladesh, the government of the country had earlier stated that it won't force the Rohingya refugees to go back to Myanmar.
The recent spate of fighting in northern Rakhine erupted when fighters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the government labels a terrorist organisation, attacked dozens of government outposts, killing several security forces, and the military launched massive retaliation.
"We [Myanmar] have prepared and are ready [to accept returnees] according to the bilateral agreement", he told The Myanmar Times in an email. "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.
Most Rohingya lived in poverty in Myanmar's Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh border.
Meanwhile, at the Palongkhali refugee camp, near the Naf River that marks the border between the two countries, a group of Rohingya leaders gathered early morning yesterday with a loudspeaker and a banner listing a set of demands. The Rohingya are also asking that homes, mosques and schools that were burned down or damaged in the military operation be rebuilt.
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.
A total of 688,000 refugees had arrived in Bangladesh between August 25 and January 21, according to the Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis in southeast Bangladesh. The fact is that some of the Bangladesh officials have said they are not ready for the process to repatriate the refugees.