Refugees "are not willing to go back now," Bangladesh's refugee commissioner Abul Kalam says, adding officials "can't force them to go."

Rohingya refugees shout slogan during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh, November 15, 2018.
Rohingya refugees shout slogan during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh, November 15, 2018. (AP)

The head of Bangladesh's refugee commission said plans to begin a voluntary repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees to their native Myanmar on Thursday were scrapped after officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return.

Terrified refugees, who arrived in Bangladesh with testimony of murder, rape and arson after they escaped a military crackdown last year, went into hiding as authorities insisted they would proceed despite UN warnings.

The refugees "are not willing to go back now," Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told Associated Press news agency adding that officials "can't force them to go" but will continue to try to "motivate them so it happens."

"According to the UNHCR voluntariness assessment, none of the 50 families interviewed expressed their willingness to go back under the present circumstances. None feels safe to go back now," Kalam said.

TRT World's Shamim Chowdhury has more. 

Protests against returning

The announcement came after about 1,000 Rohingya demonstrated at a camp in Bangladesh against returning to Myanmar.

At the Unchiprang camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox's Bazar, another Bangladeshi refugee official had implored the Rohingya to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

"We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we'll take you to the border, to the transit camp," he said.

"We won't go!" hundreds of voices, including children's, chanted in reply.

Victims of ethnic cleansing

More than 720,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya sought refuge from a Myanmar military crackdown launched from August last year that UN investigators say amounted to ethnic cleansing, joining some 300,000 already in Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees currently reside in vast camps in southeastern Bangladesh, including a massive settlement in the border district of Cox's Bazar, where community leaders said most of those marked for repatriation had headed to the hills.

"Ninety-eight percent of the families [on the list] have fled," community leader Nur Islam said on Thursday.

He and other community leaders said that an increase in the number of Bangladeshi soldiers at the camps in recent days had stoked anxiety.

"Everyone is tense, the situation is very bad," said Abdur Rahim, another leader in Cox's Bazar.

"There are a lot of army and police inside the camps. They are checking the ID cards of Rohingya."

A local police chief, Abul Khaer, played down reports of additional security, saying nothing in terms of personnel had changed in recent months.

Panic among refugees

The UN refugee agency has publicly cautioned against the repatriation going ahead and, in an internal briefing paper seen by AFP, laid out stringent conditions under which it would offer humanitarian assistance to anyone who ends up returning.

In the confidential document dated November 2018, UNHCR said it would only provide aid if returnees were allowed back to the villages they had left or to other locations chosen by them.

Bangladesh authorities have insisted only those who volunteer will be returned but UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday that many refugees are panicking at the prospect of being sent back against their will.

"With an almost complete lack of accountability – indeed with ongoing violations –returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar at this point effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades," Bachelet said.

She said that the violations against the Rohingya "amount to the worst atrocities, including crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide".

'Reckless move'

Amnesty International on Wednesday called on Bangladesh and Myanmar authorities to "immediately halt" their plans, saying it was a "reckless move which puts lives at risk."

"These women, men and children would be sent back into the Myanmar military's grasp with no protection guarantees, to live alongside those who torched their homes and whose bullets they fled," said Amnesty's Nicholas Bequelin.

Human Rights Watch echoed the concern on Thursday, asking Bangladesh to "immediately halt" the planned repatriation.

"The Bangladesh government will be stunned to see how quickly international opinion turns against it if it starts sending unwilling Rohingya refugees back into harm's way in Myanmar," said Bill Frelick, HRW refugee rights director.

Despite assurances from Myanmar, human rights activists said Thursday the conditions were not yet safe for Rohingya refugees to go back.

"Nothing the Myanmar government has said or done suggests that the Rohingya will be safe upon return," Frelick said in a statement.

The group said 150 people from 30 families were to be transferred to a transit camp on Thursday, but the camp was empty except for security guards.

Bangladesh authorities have said they've worked with the UN refugee agency to compile lists of people willing to return to Myanmar.

US Vice President Mike Pence told Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday that the violence against the Rohingya was "without excuse," adding pressure to Myanmar's civilian leader.

But on Thursday, Pence said that US officials were "encouraged to hear that" the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the UN "to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future."

Related: Rohingya conflict

Source: TRTWorld and agencies