Stephan Uttom and Rock Rozario, Dhaka, and John Zaw, MandalayUpdated: November 19, 2018 09:56 AM GMT
A Rohingya woman covers her face after reaching Bangladesh from Myanmar by boat at Shahporir Dwip Island of Cox's Bazar on Sept. 13, 2017. Bangladeshi authorities have postponed a repatriation plan until next year. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Bangladeshi authorities have pushed back a plan for repatriation of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar to next year after the latest attempt to send back refugees stalled amid opposition and safety concerns from Rohingya, rights groups and aid agencies.
Bangladesh, which is hosting more than one million Rohingya who fled deadly persecution in Rakhine State of Myanmar, will move ahead with repatriation after its national election on Dec. 30.
"We have tried to send back the first batch of Rohingya but none of 150 people on the list were willing to return. The plan is put on hold for now in line with our promise that their return must be voluntary, not enforced," Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, told ucanews.com on Nov. 19.
Kalam said the repatriation plan has "political and diplomatic" dimensions, so it requires a decision from the top level of government to move forward.
"It's election time here, so we are not expecting any major decision such as this finalized until the election is over."
Kalam said Myanmar needs to address key demands of Rohingya including citizenship and safety to assure the minority group that they can return.
"We believe all Rohingya want to go back home only after they have their principal demands met. We need to discuss the issues in the next meeting of the bilateral Joint Working Group," he added.
On Nov. 15, Bangladesh had to call off a plan to transfer 150 Rohingya from 30 families from their camps in Cox's Bazar to two border transit camps amid strong protests.
A total of 2,260 refugees verified by Myanmar were slated for repatriation in two weeks, according to a bilateral deal between the countries inked in January.
Rohingya refugees say they are not against returning if their demands are met.
"We have demanded that our land and property must be returned and we must be allowed to go back to our villages, not in camps. Also, we want a written guarantee of our safety, freedom of movement and basic rights including citizenship in Myanmar," Hosein Johur, 35, a Rohingya father of four from Balukhali refugee camp, told ucanews.com.
The Rohingya don't want to go back only to be tortured and forced to flee again, he said.
"We have endured enough suffering and we have lost everything. We want the international community including the United Nations to intervene strongly this time so that our plight will come to an end," said Johur, a former resident of Maungdaw in Rakhine who fled to Bangladesh in October 2017.
Abu Morshed Chowdhury, a human rights advocate in Cox's Bazar, said repatriation should be delayed for the sake of sustainability.
"In 1992, there was an influx of more than 200,000 Rohingya following violence in Rakhine. Later, most of them returned and it took more than two years. As it was done without a third party or international oversight, many were pushed back again. This should not happen again," Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
Rohingya demands are logical and the U.N. has to play a strong role to ensure Myanmar has a conducive situation for the return of refugees, he said.
Hla Tun Kyaw, an ethnic Rakhine MP from the anti-Rohingya Arakan National Party, does not believe Rohingya will return to Rakhine until their demands for citizenship are met.
He said those allegedly linked with a Rohingya insurgent outfit, the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), and those aiming to go to third countries will not return to Myanmar.
"Myanmar will face more pressure from the international community as lobby groups and rights groups continue their aim of getting citizenship for Rohingya," Hia Tun Kyaw told ucanews.com.
A Rohingya resident in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine, said that refugees won't return in early 2019 as Myanmar has yet to fulfil their demands.
"Rohingya refugees fear they will be locked in camps for years like the camps in central Rakhine," he told ucanews.com.
Myanmar needs to allow freedom of movement without discrimination for the remaining Rohingya in Rakhine and for internally displaced people trapped in camps since 2012, he said.
"Rohingya refugees don't trust Myanmar's government and it is a main barrier to repatriation," he added.