Rohingya refugees living in no-man's-land refused to return to Myanmar yesterday without guarantees of citizenship and security after Bangladesh and Myanmar officials met to discuss their repatriation.
Some 6,000 Rohingya were among the first to flee Myanmar in the wake of a brutal military crackdown on the Muslim minority in late August and have been living in makeshift camps on a strip of unclaimed land between the two countries ever since.
In recent weeks, they have come under pressure to return, with a Myanmar minister warning of "consequences" if they remain where they are. But community leader Dil Mohammad told Agence France-Presse (AFP) they would not return without guarantees of security, citizenship and compensation for property lost in the clampdown.
"We're not going to return to our homes and villages in Myanmar unless our demands are met. We want citizenship, all rights, security for our lives and property, and compensation," he said.
Mainly Buddhist Myanmar denies citizenship to its Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, insisting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh even though many have been there for generations. Nearly 700,000 fled after last year's crackdown, which the United Nations said amounted to ethnic cleansing. Most of those now live in camps across the border in Bangladesh, but the country's government has made clear it does not want them to stay and has agreed to start sending them home.
Officials from both countries held talks yesterday to decide the fate of the 6,000 before speaking to them directly.
"Every person we spoke to said they would go back to their homes if they got security," said the head of the Bangladesh delegation, Abdul Mannan. A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency told AFP any returns must be voluntary. "Some members of this group in no-man's-land have said they fear returning home and wish to seek safety in Bangladesh," Caroline Gluck said.
"We appeal to the Bangladeshi authorities to allow them to do so. At the same time, Myanmar should ensure conditions for the safe and sustainable return of those who wish to do so voluntarily."
A video circulated on social media last week showed Myanmar's home affairs deputy minister, Aung Soe, addressing the refugees through a barbed-wire fence.
Other Rohingya living there said the Myanmar army had recently set up bunkers near the fence and now conducted regular patrols nearby, stirring fear among the refugees.
"They tell us that we should leave this place or else they will shoot us," said Rashid Ahmed, 32.
Bangladesh was supposed to start the repatriation process last month, but it has been delayed amid concerns over a lack of preparation. Recent aerial photos of Rakhine state showed bulldozed Rohingya settlements, and it is unclear whether they will be able to return to their former homes.