By Thu Thu Aung, Poppy McPherson and Ruma Paul
YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar and Bangladesh will start a fresh attempt next week to repatriate thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, officials said on Thursday, nearly a year after a major attempt failed.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine for neighbouring Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown in August 2017 the United Nations has said was perpetrated with “genocidal intent”, but many refugees refuse to go back, fearing more violence.
A total of 3,540 refugees have been cleared for return by Myanmar from a list of more than 22,000 names recently sent by Bangladesh, officials from both countries told Reuters.
The first group of refugees would return to Myanmar next week, providing any agree to go back.
“We have agreed to the repatriation of 3,540 people on August 22,” Myint Thu, a spokesman for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters by phone.
Previous attempts at persuading Rohingya to return to Rakhine have failed due to opposition from refugees. An effort in November sowed fear and confusion in the camps, and finally failed after refugee protests.
A senior Bangladeshi official told Reuters the new effort was a “small-scale” repatriation plan, adding that nobody will be forced to return.
“Bangladesh wants nothing but a safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable repatriation,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Mohammed Eleyas, a Rohingya activist with the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, said refugees had not been consulted about the process.
Myanmar should agree to the key demands of the community before repatriation begins, he said in a message.
U.N. officials have been asked to survey the refugees verified by Myanmar to determine whether they want to return, according to internal emails by the refugee agency, UNHCR, seen by Reuters.
“UNHCR will provide refugees with the relevant and reliable information available on the conditions in Myanmar, subject to current constraint on access in the areas of return,” one of the emails said.
A UNHCR spokeswoman referred questions to Myanmar’s ministry of foreign affairs.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya remain inside Myanmar, confined to camps and villages across Rakhine state where they are denied citizenship and their movements restricted.
The U.N. has said conditions in Rakhine state, where government troops have been fighting an insurgency for months, are not conducive for the return of refugees.
The region has been enveloped in a new war, with government troops fighting Arakan Army insurgents, members of an ethnic armed group that recruits from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine, who make up the majority in the area.
A U.N. investigator said in July that human rights violations against civilians by security forces and insurgents may amount to fresh war crimes, citing reports of deaths during army interrogations.
Myanmar authorities have blocked most humanitarian agencies, including the U.N., from the area.
In July, an Australian think-tank said the government had made “minimal preparations” for the return of refugees.
An analysis of satellite imagery showed no signs of reconstruction in the overwhelming majority of former Rohingya settlements, while destruction of homes continued as recently as this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said.
Min Thein, a director at Myanmar’s social welfare ministry, said officials had been sent to reinforce several centres built on the border with Bangladesh that have sat empty for months.
“We are preparing to be ready – cleaning the transit camps, reinforcing the staff levels,” said Min Thein.
(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson; Editing by Darren Schuettler)