Repatriation of some 688,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees planned by Myanmar and Bangladesh hits roadblock after fears that decision would be forced on them.

A Rohingya Muslim refugee waits with others for food aid at Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on January 12, 2018.
A Rohingya Muslim refugee waits with others for food aid at Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on January 12, 2018. (AFP)

The gradual repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees back to Myanmar from Bangladesh, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, has been delayed amid widespread fears that refugees would be forced to return, a Bangladesh official said on Monday.

The refugees began pouring across the border into Bangladesh in August, fleeing waves of attacks by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist mobs.

While the two countries have signed an agreement to begin sending people home in "safety, security and dignity," the process has been chaotic and opaque, leaving international aid workers and many Rohingya afraid they would be coerced into going back to villages that they fled only months ago.

TRT World spoke to journalist David Grunebaum, who said the refugees want the UN and the humanitarian aid groups on the ground in Myanmar in order to move back to the country they fled last year.

'Process has to be voluntary'

Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee and repatriation commissioner, said a number of issues remain unresolved.

"The main thing is that the process has to be voluntary," said Kalam, adding that paperwork for returning refugees had not yet been finalised and transit camps had yet to be built in Bangladesh. It was not immediately clear when the process would start. 

Myanmar officials could not be reached for comment.

"If they send us back forcefully we will not go," Sayed Noor, who fled his village in Myanmar in August, said over the weekend, adding that Myanmar authorities "have to give us our rights and give us justice."

"They will have to return all our wealth that they have looted and hold people accountable. They will have to compensate us. We came here because we are fighting for those things," he said. 

"If we don't get all of this, then what was the point of coming here?"

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said that more time was needed for issues including citizenship in Myanmar to be addressed properly. 

Grandi said the UNHCR was ready to play role in Rohingya repatriation from Bangladesh, but added, there should be capacity to monitor their return.

TRT World's Staci Bivens reports.

Deal criticised

Eventually, all the Rohingya who have fled Myanmar since August were to leave Bangladesh, according to the agreement signed late last year. 

Over the weekend, the UN's migration agency increased the total estimate of those refugees to 688,000.

David Mathieson, a longtime human rights researcher who has spent years working on Rohingya issues, heaped scorn on the agreement ahead of the latest announcement.

"It's a fantasyland, make-believe world that both governments are in," he said in an interview in Yangon, Myanmar's main city, noting that security forces there had just forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya across the border. 

Now you're expecting them to come back, as if they're in a conga line of joy after what you did to them?

David Mathieson, Human Rights Researcher

Decades-long persecution

The Rohingya Muslims have long been treated as outsiders in largely Buddhist Myanmar, derided as "Bengalis" who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. 

Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.

The recent surge of violence erupted after an underground insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked at least 30 security outposts in Myanmar in late August. 

The military and Buddhist mobs then launched retaliatory attacks on Rohingya across Rakhine in a frenzy of killings, rapes and burned villages. 

The UN has described the violence as "textbook ethnic cleansing."

Aid workers say some refugees may want to return – perhaps the 500 or so Bengali-speaking Hindus who also fled the Rakhine state violence, and the handful of Rohingya who have managed to acquire citizenship documents.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies