Plan to repatriate Rohingya refugees halted as they tell Bangladesh officials 'we won't go'

Rohingya refugees shout slogans against repatriation Credit: Dar Yasin/AP

Plans to begin repatriating more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) have been scrapped after officials in Bangladesh failed to find any who wanted to return to their native country.

Despite being asked to hold off on the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled to the country following army-led violence last year in Myanmar, Bangladesh had begun plans to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

But initial efforts to encourage refugees to return failed after about 1,000 Rohingya demonstrated against returning to Myanmar.

At one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox's Bazar, a Bangladeshi refugee official, who was imploring the refugees to return to their country, was met with a mass cry of "we won't go".

"We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we'll take you to the border, to the transit camp," he said through a loudspeaker.

Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam said on Thursday that officials "can't force them to go" but will continue to try to "motivate them so it happens."

UN officials and human-rights groups cautioned against beginning the process before the refugees’ safety had been assured. An UN-brokered deal with Bangladesh and Myanmar, means the Rohingya people cannot be forced to repatriate.

"Nothing the Myanmar government has said or done suggests that the Rohingya will be safe upon return," Human Rights Watch refugee rights director Bill Frelick said in a statement.

Rohingya refugee Sitara Begum with her son Mohammed Abbas Credit: Dar Yasin/AP

The huge exodus of Rohingya Muslims began in August last year after Burmese security forces launched a brutal crackdown of such force following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts that was likened to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group. They view them as "Bengalis" who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar.

Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

A Rohingya refugee woman cries as she waits with others to hear news on the repatriation process. Credit: AP

The group said 150 people from 30 families were to be transferred to a transit camp on Thursday, but the camp was empty except for security guards.

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not.

She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

"They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents," said Setara, who only gave one name. "I don't want to go back."