The controversial repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to Burma, due to begin on Tuesday, will be delayed, a senior Bangladesh official confirmed on Monday.
“A lot of preparation is still needed,” said Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, Abul Kalam Azad, adding that a “rigorous process” was required to return some 750,000 refugees who have fled a brutal military crackdown in Burma’s Rakhine state since August.
Bangladesh and Burma agreed late last year to return the refugees as soon as possible, despite mounting evidence that the Muslim minority had been subjected to mass rape, murder, and torture in a military campaign described by the United Nations as “ethnic cleansing.”
Mr Azad did not give a revised starting date, commenting only that transit centres had yet to be constructed and lists of potential returnees still to be compiled and verified. The entire repatriation process is scheduled to take two years.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has said it is not currently involved but is willing to play a “constructive role” if allowed, and under conditions that would guarantee the refugees’ rights.
British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Alison Blake, said on Sunday that the return should be “safe, voluntary and dignified”.
Meanwhile, human rights group Fortify Rights warned that “any repatriation now would be premature and dangerous".
Aid workers have spoken of anxiety in the camps among the still traumatised refugees. Community leaders are demanding that Burma first guarantees the Rohingya people their long-denied citizenship and include them on the list of the country’s recognised ethnic groups.
Telegraph photographer Heathcliff O’Malley’s pictures of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
They are also asking that their destroyed homes and property be rebuilt and for the military to be held accountable for alleged killings and rape.
In the Kutupalong refugee camp, Nir Ahmed, 65, told The Telegraph that he first fled to Bangladesh in 1978 when 200,000 Rohingya were driven out of Burma by a similar brutal military operation.
He stayed for six months that time, and said that he wanted to return home again, but only if he was regarded as a full citizen.
“People are very worried about the [repatriation] agreement. We suspect they will take us back to Burma and put us in camps,” he said. “I would rather tell Bangladesh just to kill us here.”
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