Bangkok, Aug 16 (AP/UNB) — Myanmar and Bangladesh are making a second attempt to start repatriating Rohingya Muslims after more than 700,000 of them fled a security crackdown in Myanmar almost two years ago, Bangladeshi and U.N. officials said Friday.
Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Associated Press that the Bangladesh government has asked for its help in verifying the 3,450 people who signed up for voluntary repatriation. She said the list was whittled from 22,000 names that Bangladesh had sent to Myanmar for verification.
Bangladesh's Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam said the identities of the refugees have been confirmed by Myanmar and now they could go back there if they want.
Speaking in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, he said the government had ordered local officials in Cox's Bazar district to locate those on the list in the four refugee camps there, but their repatriation would only happen if they actually want to return voluntarily.
"We are working as per the list, but I can't tell you if they will go back," he said.
He said Bangladesh was always ready to provide support to any refugees who wish to return home, but also would not use force to make them go back.
Leaders of the Rohingya refugee community in the camps said they had not been consulted on the matter and were unaware of plans for any imminent return.
Myanmar's military in August 2017 launched a counterinsurgency campaign in response to an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group. The army operation led to the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh and accusations that security forces committed mass rapes, killings and burned thousands of homes.
The U.N.-established Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar last year recommended the prosecution of Myanmar's top military commanders for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Myanmar has rejected the report and any suggestion its forces did anything wrong.
In July, Myanmar officials went to the camps in Bangladesh to talk to the refugees about their plans and preparations to bring them back, the latest of several similar visits. So far, most refugees appear to distrust the promises and believe it is too dangerous to return.
It is unclear when any repatriation might begin, given the need to find and check all the individuals and the fact that there is a major holiday at the moment in Bangladesh, Gluck said.
It is also possible it may stall, as it did last year.
Bangladesh authorities then had arranged transportation and other facilities to help them return, but the refugees started protesting against the move, saying they would not go back as they did not feel safe. The authorities waited for a whole day to find a refugee who would go back voluntarily but found none. Bangladesh then temporarily suspended the repatriation attempt.
"It's very hard to say whether people will accept voluntary repatriation this time round," Gluck said. "They tell us very clearly we want to go back with .. full rights . They are not willing to go back if nothing on the ground has changed."
The Rohingya have long been treated as outsiders in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations.
Nearly all Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless, and they are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.