Preparations to repatriate an initial batch of 2,200 Rohingya in line with a plan agreed with Myanmar in October, had started but ultimately had to be abandoned.
Officials in Myanmar eventually admitted that no refugees had been moved back across the border.
The plan has been opposed by the United Nations (UN) refugee agency and aid groups, who fear for the safety of the Rohingya if they return to homeland, as well as by many living in camps in Bangladesh.
At the Unchiprang refugee camp in southeast Bangladesh, near the Myanmar border, a Bangladeshi refugee official 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.
“No, no, we won’t go,” hundreds of Rohingya protesters chanted in response.
Some also waved placards that said “We want justice” and “We will never return to Myanmar without our citizenship”.
“It’s welcome that, for now at least, the authorities are not pressing ahead with forced repatriation,” Mike Noyes, director of policy, advocacy and programmes at ActionAid UK told The Independent. “Rohingya refugees, including the women and girls ActionAid works with, are terrified of being forced to return – yet up until now, their voices have been ignored.
“Almost all of the Rohingya women and girls we work with have survived appalling sexual violence – and they’re telling us that they need safety, justice and some control over their future. It’s clear that any repatriation right now would not be in the best interests of the Rohingya refugees.
“The international community – including the UK – must now help to ensure that any repatriation is strictly informed, voluntary, dignified and safe.”
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a brutal army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, according to UN agencies. The crackdown was launched in response to Rohingya insurgent attacks on Myanmar’s security forces.
Rohingya refugees say soldiers and Buddhist civilians massacred families, burned hundreds of villages and carried out gang rapes. UN-mandated investigators have accused the Myanmar army ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Myanmar has denied the accusations, saying its security forces have been engaged in a counter-insurgency operation against “terrorists”.
Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.
Myanmar blamed Bangladesh for failing to supply returnees, but said it was ready to accept them.
“Bangladesh side didn’t transfer anyone until now. To be honest, Bangladesh is weak in following the physical arrangement,” Myint Thu, permanent secretary at Myanmar’s foreign affairs ministry, said at a media briefing.
Unverified images on social media showed officials on the Myanmar side of the border waiting at a reception centre.
“We will accept them according to the agreement signed by the two countries. Whether they come back or not is their own decision.”
Human rights activists have maintained conditions are not safe for Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.
“Nothing the Myanmar government has said or done suggests that the Rohingya will be safe upon return,” Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch refugee rights director, said in a statement.
In addition to those who arrived in Bangladesh last year, about 200,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar during previous waves of violence and persecution.
Additional reporting by agencies
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies