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Bangladesh Postpones Controversial Plan To Send Rohingya Refugees Back Home


Bangladesh says it is postponing the start of a program to send hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. The controversial repatriation plan was supposed to start tomorrow. And while it's supposed to be voluntary, human rights groups and many refugees worry that people could be forced to go back to Myanmar. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from what's now become the largest refugee camp in the world, where Rohingya refugees say they're relieved.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Sitting on a straw mat in his shelter near Bangladesh's border with Myanmar, refugee Sonah Meah says he was tortured and left for dead by the Myanmar military in August of last year.

SONAH MEAH: (Speaking Rohingya).

BEAUBIEN: He says soldiers accused him of being part of an armed insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which he denies. They knocked several of his teeth out, he says, and repeatedly beat him unconscious. NPR can't independently confirm his story, but it's similar to the accounts of other Rohingya. They say they were attacked by government troops, while Myanmar says it was carrying out a cleanup operation against terrorists. Starting in late August, more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees flooded across the border into Bangladesh in what the United Nations called an exodus unprecedented in terms of volume and speed. Meah says there's no way he'd return to Myanmar anytime soon.

MEAH: (Speaking Rohingya).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's saying that they'll kill us. If I go, they'll kill me.

BEAUBIEN: Meah says he was happy to hear today that Bangladesh is delaying the start of the repatriation plan the government officials say would send nearly 800,000 Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar. Officials say they're delaying the return program not out of concerns about the safety of the returning refugees, but because of logistical problems. Bangladesh still plans to move forward with the repatriation, although it's unclear exactly when.

Bangladesh officials say none of the refugees will be forced to go home, yet the deal signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar calls for all the Rohingya refugees to be transferred to Myanmar over the next two years. Another refugee, 30-year-old Shafika Khatun, says that she won't go back to Myanmar unless Myanmar grants the Rohingya citizenship.

SHAFIKA KHATUN: (Speaking Rohingya).

BEAUBIEN: "We need our rights and our citizenship in Myanmar," she says. Myanmar doesn't consider the Rohingya to be citizens despite many Rohingyas having been in Myanmar for generations. The Muslim minority are treated as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and have faced waves of violence and harassment by the Buddhist majority for decades. The status of the Rohingya as a stateless people inside Myanmar is not addressed as part of the repatriation deal.

The deal also is strictly between the government of Bangladesh and Myanmar. It excludes the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is usually involved in such large-scale refugee return programs. And the U.N. agency has been asking, so far unsuccessfully, to be involved in the process. The U.N. has accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing, and the refugees are worried about their fate if they are sent back. Khatun says she's heard the Rohingya will be forced to live in camps.

KHATUN: (Speaking Rohingya).

BEAUBIEN: "We want our land. We want our houses. We want our rights," Khatun says. She won't even consider going back to Myanmar, she says, until it's clear that she can go back safely and as a full citizen. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.