Repatriation plan stalls as Rohingya refuse to return to Myanmar

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Myanmar's government has trumpeted every occasion where a Rohingya family has returned, however many fear returning to Myanmar without guaranteed rights such as citizenship, access to healthcare and freedom of movement - rights that were denied to them long before last year's crackdown. They joined about 200,000 refugees who had fled previous waves of violence and persecution. The scale, organization and ferocity of the operation led to accusations from the worldwide community, including the United Nations, of ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

Many refugees listed to return have reportedly fled the refugee camps and hid in the hills.

"They (the Myanmar authorities) are going to keep people in camps", he said.

"Camp situation very bad now", another refugee wrote on WhatsApp, saying that some families were being forced to go to transit centers.

Bangladesh government refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said his team was "completely ready" to start sending back people but stressed that the Rohingya had to be volunteers.

"According to the UNHCR voluntariness assessment, none of the 50 families interviewed expressed their willingness to go back under the present circumstances".

Earlier, three sources directly briefed on the issue, said repatriation would not begin on Thursday as none of those selected to go back had agreed.

Bangladesh's refugee commissioner went to a border transit point for the scheduled handover. "We will not send them forcefully".

As the deadline day for repatriation loomed, Rohingya leaders said almost all those on the returnee list had gone into hiding. "Though they are trying to reassure us, I'm not convinced". They also prefer to go back to Rakhine through borders in Ghumdhum of Bandarban and Tombru in Rakhine. Our camp is open six days a week other than Friday.

"We won't go!" hundreds of voices, including children's, chanted in reply.

Another refugee told the BBC he fled with his wife and sons but that many relatives had been killed. "Whether they come back or not is their own decision". "How can we go there?"

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They say soldiers and local Buddhists massacred families, burned hundreds of villages, and carried out gang rapes.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar's Rakhine state to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

Ethnic Rakhine villagers told me on a recent trip they believed all Rohingya were illegal and unsafe immigrants.

So while the Myanmar government talks about building temporary shelters, offering medical care and sufficient food rations for Rohingyas who return, many worldwide observers insist the root causes of the violence and hate-filled attitudes need to be properly tackled before Rohingyas can return home and live with safety and dignity.

Earlier this week, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation plan saying it violated worldwide law. "Bangladesh needs to uphold its worldwide obligations - and maintain its well-earned global reputation for providing refuge to the Rohingya - and not grab at quick and illusory solutions that will once again put desperate people at risk".

"The Bangladesh government will be stunned to see how quickly worldwide opinion turns against it if it starts sending unwilling Rohingya refugees back into harm's way in Myanmar", Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, said.

Mohiuddin Mohamad-Yusof, a Rohingya refugee and head of the World Rohingya Organization in NY, told UPI his family is in camps and that he's skeptical about their safety.

The Muslim Rohingya are one of the many ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

The Rohingya demand that Myanmar recognizes their ethnic identity, grants them citizenship and allows them to return to their original homes and lands.

The mass exodus of Rohingya began after the Myanmar military responded to an initial attack from a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25, 2017.

But the Rohingya also use the past to assert indigenousness over the Rakhine, the rival group, even as the two groups share similar cultures.

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