Dozens of persecuted Rohingya Muslim families on a list of refugees set to be repatriated to Myanmar later this week have fled from camps in southeast Bangladesh.
“Most of the people on the list have fled to avoid being repatriated,” Reuters quoted Abdus Salam, a Rohingya leader at the Jamtoli camp, some 40 kilometers southeast of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, as saying on Monday.
He added that most had fled to other neighboring camps to avoid being detected and forced to return against their will.
Dozens of individuals on the list of potential returnees submitted by Bangladesh have recently said that they would refuse to return to Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, from where they fled, saying they were terrified.
One refugee, who has fled with his family from Jamtoli to the large Kutupalong camp to evade repatriation, said Rohingya fears were growing as refugees faced forcible return to Myanmar. “People are so afraid of being identified. They are avoiding Friday prayers at the mosque.”
The developments come as the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar are to push ahead with the repatriation of thousands of Rohingya Muslims this week against the wishes of the refugees.
A Myanmar government statement has said an initial group of 2,251 would be sent back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.
Myanmar’s Minister for Social Welfare and Resettlement Win Myat Aye said on Sunday they were ready to begin receiving refugees this week.
“It depends on the other country, whether this will actually happen or not,” the minister said, adding, “But we must be ready from our side. We have done that.”
Abul Kalam, the Bangladesh government’s Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, said he was hopeful the process could begin on Thursday.
“The return will be voluntary. Nobody will be forced to go back,” he said.
The UN refugee agency in a statement late on Sunday called on Myanmar to allow Rohingya refugees to visit their places of origin or resettlement sites to make their own “independent assessment of whether they feel they can return there in safety and dignity.”
“Myanmar authorities should allow these refugees to undertake such go-and-see visits without prejudice to their right to return at a later date,” the statement read.
Both governments have been pushing ahead with this first large-scale repatriation effort. This has prompted criticism from a group of 42 aid agencies who said in a statement that it would be “dangerous” for them.
The plan has been met with widespread opposition from the Rohingya, who say they will not return without guarantees of basic rights, including citizenship and freedom of movement.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been living for more than a year in cramped refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh after fleeing violence in Rakhine at the hands of the Myanmar military.
The campaign against the Rohingya, which the UN has described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, has seen mass killings, torture, and gang-rape of the Muslims as well as arson attacks against their homes and farms in Rakhine.
UN-mandated investigators have recently accused the Myanmar army of “genocidal intent” and ethnic cleansing.