Frightened and angry Rohingya refugees on Thursday forced Bangladesh to call off efforts to start sending back some of the hundreds of thousands of the stateless Muslims to Myanmar, casting fresh doubts over a disputed repatriation programme.
Not a single Rohingya from the 720,000 estimated to have fled a Myanmar military crackdown in August last year volunteered to be in the first 150 returnees under the accord signed with Bangladesh. Hundreds staged a demonstration shouting “we will not go”.
With the UN and aid groups also fighting the repatriation programme, Rohingya leaders said many on a Bangladesh repatriation list of 2,260 people had gone into hiding.
Bangladesh officials waited for hours at a border transit point, but not one of the refugees turned up.
At a special camp nearby, five buses waited to carry volunteers to the border. They remained empty and about 1,000 Rohingya men, women and children took part in the demonstration against repatriations, shouting “we want justice”.
Tajul Mulluk, 85, who is on the repatriation list, said: “They killed two of my sons. I escaped to Bangladesh with two others. Please don’t send us back. They will kill the rest of my family.”
“We can’t go back,” added Mohammad Amin, 45, who was among the protesters.
“[The Myanmar] have tortured us, killed our people. If we go back without any justice, they will repeat the same thing. That’s why we protested today.”
The UN had urged Bangladesh to suspend the programme, with rights chief Michelle Bachelet saying it would send the Rohingya “back to the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades.”
Many of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar last year have recounted horrific tales of murder, rape and razed villages. The UN has said a genocide investigation is warranted.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said his team was “completely ready” to start sending back Rohingya but stressed that only volunteers would go.
“If we get anyone willing to go, we will carry them to the border point with respect and dignity.”
Kalam said there would be no forced repatriation and acknowledged that the UNHCR refugee agency had found no family ready to go.
“None feels safe to go back now,” Kalam said.
The most recent influx of refugees joined the roughly 300,000 Rohingya who had previously fled violence in Myanmar for camps around the Bangladesh city of Cox’s Bazar.
It has left the poor South Asian nation struggling to cope with about one million Rohingya.
UN agencies say they have received only a fraction of the billion-plus dollars needed to pay for their operations for the year.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in October last year to start repatriations.
But with Myanmar still refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing in its treatment of the Rohingya, the operation has faced mounting opposition.
US Vice President Mike Pence told Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a summit on Wednesday that the violence against the Rohingya was “without excuse”.
He added Thursday that securing justice for the victims of “atrocities” in Rakhine state was a condition for better Myanmar-US relations.
As deadline day loomed, Rohingya leaders said nearly all those on the repatriation list had fled to other camps and nearby hills.
A confidential UNHCR document said the agency would only provide aid if returnees were allowed back to the villages they had left or to other locations chosen by them.
Amnesty International on Wednesday called the planned repatriation “reckless”. Human Rights Watch had also called on Bangladesh not to send back the Rohingya.
“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.