By Poppy McPherson
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – An attempt to begin repatriating thousands of Rohingya Muslims living in camps in Bangladesh stalled on Thursday after nearly 300 refugee families refused to go back to Myanmar, almost a year after a similar effort failed amid protests.
Last week, the neighbours said they had agreed Aug. 22 as the start date for the return of 3,450 people cleared by Myanmar, of more than 730,000 who fled a military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017, and now shelter in the sprawling camps.
The United Nations says the crackdown in Myanmar’s northern state was carried out with “genocidal intent”. Although Myanmar authorities say they are ready to receive any who return, refugees have refused to go back for fear of further violence.
Since the plan was announced, United Nations staff and Bangladesh officials have been interviewing those cleared for return, selected from a list of more than 22,000 sent by Bangladesh to Myanmar, to determine if they want to go.
None of the 295 families consulted until now had agreed to go back, said a Bangladesh relief official, Mohammad Abul Kalam, although buses and trucks had been arranged to carry them across the border.
“This is a continuous process,” Kalam, who is Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Reuters by telephone.
“We are interviewing other families who were cleared by the Myanmar government and if anyone expresses willingness to go back we’ll return them. All structural arrangements and logistical facilities are put in place.”
Min Thein, the director of Myanmar’s social welfare ministry, told Reuters that officials had been sent to greet any arrivals at reception centres on the border.
However, the director of Rakhine state’s general administration department, Kyaw Swar Tun, declined to comment, saying, “I have nothing to say.”
Previous attempts to persuade Rohingya to return to Rakhine have failed due to opposition from the refugees. An effort in November sowed fear and confusion in the camps, and finally failed after refugee protests.
The U.N. and Western countries have said the August 2017 military crackdown included mass killings and gang-rapes.
Myanmar has previously rejected the U.N.’s categorisation of the violence in Rakhine as “one-sided”. It says that military action that followed militant attacks on security forces was a legitimate counter-insurgency operation.
(Reporting by Poppy Mcpherson in COX’S BAZAR; Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in DHAKA and Thu Thu Aung in YANGON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)