The more than one million Rohingya Muslims are described as the ‘world’s most persecuted minority’.
A plan to start repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya back to Myanmar is premature and the refugees are “terrified” about leaving Bangladesh, dozens of aid agencies working in the region said on Friday.
“They are terrified about what will happen to them if they are returned to Myanmar now, and distressed by the lack of information they have received,” the group of 42 aid agencies and civil society groups said in a statement that referred to the push as “dangerous”.
“They fled to Bangladesh to seek safety and they are very grateful to the Government of Bangladesh for giving them a safe haven.”
Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children were among the groups working in Myanmar and Bangladesh that signed the statement.
Earlier, the UN has said conditions in Rakhine, where Buddhists have protested against the repatriation, are not conducive for the return. The special envoy on human rights, Yanghee Lee, on Thursday urged a halt to the “rushed plans”.
More than 720,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State after a military crackdown in August 2017 that survivors say involved mass rape and extrajudicial killings.
UN officials say the country’s military leaders should be investigated for genocide, but Myanmar has rebuffed the calls, arguing it was only defending itself against Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts.
Both Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation agreement in November last year to allow Rohingya to return but many fear going back without guarantees of citizenship, freedom of movement and safety.
The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments have confirmed in recent weeks that they were pushing ahead with the first large-scale repatriation set for mid-November, prompting an outcry from activists who say conditions on the ground in Rakhine are not favourable to take the refugees back.
They said refugees fear to live in enclosed settlements like the one in central Rakhine State, where more than 120,000 Rohingya have been confined to camps for six years since inter-communal violence erupted in the region in 2012.
Myint Khaing, the Maungdaw township administrator in northern Rakhine, told AFP news agency that November 15 is the estimated repatriation start date and that the plan is to receive more than 2,200 people in total at a rate of 150 a day.
But he seemed unsure if it would go ahead. “We can confirm only on the 15th whether the people from our given list are coming or not,” he said.
Refugees have accused Myanmar soldiers and local Buddhists of carrying out mass killings and rapes during the violence last year, while the United Nations has accused the military of “genocidal intent”.
Myanmar has denied almost all the allegations.
News of the repatriation comes as dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh have boarded boats to try to reach Malaysia, raising fears of a fresh wave of such dangerous voyages after a 2015 crackdown on people smugglers.
One boat attempted to set sail from the southern coast of Bangladesh on Wednesday, the coastguard said, while several vessels left Rakhine State in western Myanmar, according to Rohingya leaders, aid workers and a monitoring group.
Officials detained 33 Rohingya and six Bangladeshis onboard a fishing boat bound for Malaysia in the southeastern part of the Bay of Bengal, said Foyezul Islam Mondol, the head of the coastguard in southeastern Teknaf Upazila.
Six Bangladeshis were also arrested, he said.
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Myanmar said the organisation had heard “similar reports” of boats leaving the country but could not confirm their location.
For years, Rohingya on both sides of the border have boarded boats organised by smugglers in the dry months between November and March, when the sea is calm.
The perilous journey to Thailand and Malaysia, often undertaken in overcrowded, rickety vessels, has cost many lives.
Thailand cracked down on the trade after discovering a series of mass graves in 2015, leading to a crisis when smugglers abandoned their human cargo and left boats adrift in the Andaman Sea.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has a network of sources across Rohingya communities, said the threat of being sent back to Myanmar could be pushing refugees to turn to smugglers.
“The Rohingya are trapped,” she told Reuters news agency. “They have nowhere to go. No one wants them, and now they face on top of that the threat of repatriation.”
On the other side of the border in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been languishing in camps since 2012 that the New York Times newspaper termed 21st-century concentration camps.
Accounts of how many boats had left Myanmar differed. A high level of secrecy surrounds the smuggling operations.
An aid worker in Sittwe said they had received information that at least four boats had departed since the start of October, and some of them had already arrived in Malaysia. Some of those boarding the boats were women and children joining other family members, the aid worker said.