YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar blamed Bangladesh on Tuesday (Jan 23) for delays to a huge repatriation programme for Rohingya refugees, as the deadline passed for starting the return of the Muslim minority to strife-torn Rakhine state.
More than 680,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after a brutal Myanmar army crackdown began last August, while a further 100,000 fled a previous bout of violence in October 2016.
Myanmar agreed that from Jan 23 it would start taking them back from the squalid camps in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh where they have sought shelter.
But a Bangladeshi official said on Monday the programme would not begin as planned.
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said there was much more work to be done.
The complex process of registering huge numbers of the dispossessed has been further cast into doubt by the refugees, who are too afraid to return to the scene of what the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar authorities are also accused of drawing out the process by agreeing to take back just 1,500 people a week.
It has prepared two reception camps on its side of the border.
Myanmar officials said that by Tuesday afternoon no Rohingya had crossed back into Rakhine, the scene of alleged widespread atrocities by Myanmar’s army and ethnic Rakhine mobs.
“We are right now ready to receive… we are completely ready to welcome them according to the agreement,” Kyaw Tin, Minister of International Cooperation told reporters in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital.
“We have seen the news that the Bangladesh side is not ready, but we have not received any official” explanation, he added.
National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said “it is our hope that this will commence today as agreed.”
With hundreds of Rohingya villages torched and communal tensions still at boiling point in Rakhine, rights groups say Rohingya returnees will be at best corralled into long-term camps.
Those who return must sign a form verifying they did so voluntarily and pledging to abide by Myanmar laws.
Myanmar has sent a list of more than 1,000 “wanted” alleged Rohingya militants to Bangladesh, while headshot photos of the suspects have been widely circulated inside the country.
In a sign of the tensions attached to the repatriation issue, a second Rohingya leader was killed in Bangladesh camps on Monday – allegedly after endorsing the returns programme.
Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest countries, has been besieged by an influx of Rohingya since communal violence flared in 2016.
Dhaka has tried to use the global outcry over the crisis to press Myanmar into taking back the refugees before they settle – joining an estimated 200,000 Rohingya stuck in Cox’s Bazar camps since a previous bout of violence in the 1990s.