Hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh protested on Thursday against any attempt to send them back to Myanmar after the launch of a repatriation plan was postponed.
Bangladesh had begun preparations to repatriate an initial batch of 2,200 Rohingya to Myanmar on Thursday, in line with a plan agreed with Myanmar in October, but by late afternoon no refugees had been moved back across the border, Myanmar officials said.
There have been extensive doubts about the plan and it has been opposed by the UN refugee agency and aid groups, who fear for the safety of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and by many Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh.
“No, no, we won’t go,” hundreds of Rohingya protesters chanted in the Unchiprang camp in southeast Bangladesh, near the Myanmar border.
Some protesters 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 UN agencies, launched in response to Rohingya insurgent attacks on the 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 of the accusations, saying its security forces have been engaged in a counter-insurgency operation against “terrorists.”
Myanmar blamed Bangladesh for failing to supply returnees but said it was still ready to accept them.
“Bangladesh side didn’t transfer anyone until now. 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.
Unverified images on social media showed officials on the Myanmar side of the border waiting at a reception center.
“We will accept them according to the agreement signed by the two countries. Whether they come back or not is their own decision.”
Earlier, three sources directly briefed on the issue, said repatriation would not begin on Thursday as none of those selected to go back had agreed.
“Nobody wants to go back,” said one of the sources.
The Bangladesh government declined to comment.
The repatriation of a first group was to have begun on Thursday.
But Bangladesh has vowed not to force anyone to return and it has asked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to make sure those short-listed to return really want to go back.
UN rights boss Michelle Bachelet called on Bangladesh on Tuesday to halt the repatriation plan, warning that lives would be put at “serious risk.”
The UN human rights office continued to receive reports of ongoing violations committed against Rohingya in Myanmar - including alleged killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, Bachelet said.
Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya a native ethnic group and most are stateless. Many in the Buddhist-majority country call the Rohingya “Bengalis,” suggesting they belong in Bangladesh.