The UN refugee agency and other groups have urged a rethink of a plan to send Muslim Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar amid fears of forced repatriations without safeguards such as guaranteed citizenship after they fled to Bangladesh to escape bloodshed at home.
The calls come as Bangladesh delayed the repatriation of the largely stateless Rohingya to Myanmar that was set to begin on Tuesday, as the process of compiling and verifying the list of people to be sent back was incomplete.
“In order for the repatriation to be (done) right, to be sustainable, actually viable…you need to really address a number of issues that for the time being we have heard nothing about,” UNHCR head Filippo Grandi said in Geneva, noting that issues like citizenship had not been addressed.
More than 655,500 Muslim Rohingya fled to Bangladesh last year after the Myanmar military cracked down in the northern part of Rakhine state, amid witness reports of killings, looting and rape, in response to militant attacks on security forces on August 25 last year.
Many people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The United Nations described Myanmar’s crackdown as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which Myanmar denies.
Grandi said it was important to set up a monitoring mechanism in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for those returning and noted that UNHCR currently did not have the ability to move freely and perform this role there.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed earlier this month to complete a voluntary repatriation of the refugees in two years. Myanmar says it has set up two reception centres and a temporary camp near the border in Rakhine state to receive the first arrivals.
Human Rights Watch, a non-government organization, said on Tuesday that Bangladesh should suspend the plan entirely as it “threatens the refugees` security and well-being.”
The plan has sparked fears in refugee camps in Bangladesh that people may be forced to return despite a lack of guarantees around their security.
One Rohingya man detained on Monday by the Bangladeshi military at the Palong Khali refugee camp following a protest against repatriations remained in police custody on Tuesday and was still being interrogated, officials said.
“He was detained for instigating violence. He is in custody for interrogation,” local police chief Abul Khayer told Reuters by telephone.
A UNHCR official said the agency plans to bring up the detention with Bangladesh during their next meeting, as the refugees were only staging a peaceful protest.