Bangladesh says start of Rohingya return to Myanmar delayed

Rohingya refugees waiting for food aid at Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district, on Jan 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

PALONGKHALI (REUTERS) - Bangladesh has delayed the repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar, set to start on Tuesday (Jan 23), because the process of compiling and verifying the list of people to be sent back is incomplete, a senior Bangladesh official said.

The decision comes as tensions have risen in camps holding hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of whom are opposing their transfer back to Myanmar because of lack of security guarantees.

Myanmar agreed earlier this month to receive the Rohingya refugees at two reception centres and a temporary camp near its border with Bangladesh over a two-year period starting Tuesday. The authorities have said repatriations would be voluntary.

But Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, said on Monday the return would have to be delayed. He did not immediately give a new date for the repatriations to begin.

"There are many things remaining," he told Reuters by phone. "The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps is remaining."

More than 655,500 Muslim Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after a crackdown by the Myanmar military in the northern part of Rakhine state in response to militant attacks on security forces on Aug 25. The United Nations described the military operation as ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which Myanmar denies.

Myanmar said it was ready to take back the returning Rohingya.

"We are ready to accept them once they come back. On our part, the preparation is ready," Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told Reuters by phone.

He declined to comment on whether Bangladesh had informed Myanmar about the delay.

At the Palongkhali refugee camp, near the Naf river that marks the border between the two countries, a group of Rohingya leaders gathered early on Monday morning with a loudspeaker and a banner listing a set of demands for their return to Myanmar.

These include security guarantees, the granting of citizenship and the group's recognition in Myanmar's list of ethnic minorities. The Rohingya are also asking that homes, mosques and schools that were burned down or damaged in the military operation be rebuilt.

Bangladesh army officials arrived at the protest and dispersed the crowd of 300. Witnesses said they saw the army take away one of the Rohingya leaders who was holding a banner.

Bangladesh army spokesman Rashedul Hasan said he had not received any information on a protest from the refugee camps this morning, but said he was trying to find out more.

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