Bangladesh authorities said they are ready to begin repatriating some of the more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled from army-led violence in Burma since last year, but refugees scheduled to leave said they would refuse to go because of fears for their safety.
Some said their families have fled from their shanties in the refugee camps to avoid being sent back.
Refugees, Repatriation and Rehabilitation Commissioner Abul Kalam said 30 refugee families would be handed over on Thursday at the Ghumdhum border point near Cox’s Bazar, where refugees have been living in crammed camps.
The two countries had originally agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya last January, but that was called off amid concerns among aid workers and the Rohingya that their safety was not guaranteed.
Mr Kalam said about 2,260 refugees from 485 families would be sent back in an initial batch.
Burma officials said recently that they would receive 150 refugees each day.
But it was unclear whether the repatriation would begin smoothly amid reports that many of the refugees on the initial list have fled.
“I will not go. My wife and other family members have gone elsewhere, they do not want to go,” 35-year-old Nurul Amin said outside the Jamtoli camp, where he and his family have been living for more than a year.
“I stayed back to guard my valuables. We are serious, we do not want to go,” he said.
“If you say you will shoot us if we do not agree to go back, we will welcome bullets, we still will not go.”
Please do not force us to go
Mohammed Selim, 23, said his wife and seven other family members went into hiding after finding out that they would be sent back on Thursday. “We are grateful to the Bangladesh government, the Bangladeshi people for their help. Please do not force us to go,” he said.
“If we need to go, we demand that we go back to our homes, not to any camps there. We have our land, we have our homes,” he said. On Sunday, the Burma government said it was ready to welcome returning refugees.
It said returning Rohingya would stay at repatriation camps for two days and receive food and clothing before moving on to transit camps.
It said China, India and Japan were “providing necessary assistance” for the repatriation process.
Despite the promises by Burma, human rights activists say conditions are not yet safe for their return.
Last week, the UN’s independent investigator for human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, called the plans “rushed” and said she was concerned there were no guarantees that the refugees would be protected from new persecution if they return home.
Foreign leaders have criticised Burma leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.
Rohingya began fleeing into Bangladesh after Burmese security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts in August 2017.
The scale, organisation and ferocity of the operation led to accusations from the international community, including the United Nations, of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Burma’s government has denied the accusations.
Burma officials said that returnees can get an ID document called a national verification card that will allow them to travel in the Maungdaw area of Rakhine state, and that they can then begin to apply for citizenship. But there is widespread scepticism that any of returning refugees will ever be granted citizenship.
Most people in Buddhist-majority Burma do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group.
They are viewed as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Burma.
Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.
They have also been denied freedom of movement and other basic rights. Many people who fled earlier violence and moved into displacement camps inside Burma have been unable to leave those settlements for years.
Most Rohingya have lived in poverty in Rakhine, near the Bangladesh border. Marked by their religion and their language, most speak a dialect of Bengali, while most of their neighbours speak Rakhine, they are easy to target.