Myanmar blamed Bangladesh on Tuesday for delays to the start of a huge repatriation programme for Rohingya refugees, as the UN warned of the dangers of rushing their return to strife-torn Rakhine state.
Nearly 690,000 Rohingya escaped to Bangladesh after a Myanmar army crackdown began in the state last August, while around 100,000 fled an earlier bout of violence in October 2016.
In signs the unrest was continuing despite the repatriation plans, Bangladesh officials said a huge fire burned and gunshots were heard in a village in Rakhine.
Myanmar agreed that from January 23 it would start taking back those refugees who had fled since 2016 and sought shelter in the squalid camps clustered in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
But a Bangladeshi official said Monday the programme would not begin as planned. Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said there was much more preparatory work to be done.
The complex process of registering huge numbers of the dispossessed has been further cast into doubt by the refugees themselves, who are too afraid to return to the scene of what the UN has called “ethnic cleansing”.
Mainly Buddhist Myanmar sees the Rohingya in Rakhine as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
Myanmar has also been accused of drawing out the repatriation 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.
“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.
With hundreds of Rohingya villages torched and communal tensions still at boiling point in Rakhine, rights groups say Rohingya returnees will at best be herded into long-term camps.
Those who return must sign a form verifying they did so voluntarily and pledging to abide by Myanmar laws.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said safeguards for potential returnees were still absent, while refugees continue to leave Myanmar and access for aid agencies and the media to Rakhine is restricted.
In a statement it urged Myanmar to implement advisory commission recommendations calling for security for all communities, freedom of movement and solutions for citizenship for Muslim communities.
“Without this, the risk of dangerous and rushed returns into a situation where violence might reignite is too great to be ignored.”