Bangladesh's leader accused neighboring Myanmar of finding new excuses to delay the return of more than 700,000 Rohingya who were forced across the border over the past year, and said in an interview late Tuesday that under no circumstance would the refugees remain permanently in her already crowded country.
"I already have 160 million people in my country," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, when asked whether Bangladesh would be willing to walk back its policy against permanent integration. "I can't take any other burden. I can't take it. My country cannot bear."
Hasina was speaking to Reuters in New York, where she is attending the annual United Nations meeting of world leaders. The prime minister, who faces a national election in December, said she does not want to pick a fight with Myanmar over the refugees. But she suggested patience is growing thin with Myanmar's leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and its military that she said wields the "main power" there. Hasina has previously called on the international community to pressure Myanmar to implement the deal.
Calls to Myanmar's government spokesman, Zaw Htay, went unanswered. He said recently that he will no longer answer media questions by phone, but will answer questions at a biweekly press conference.
Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after a bloody military campaign against the Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The two countries reached a deal in November to begin repatriation within two months, but it has not started, with stateless Rohingya still crossing the border into Bangladesh and the refugee camps at Cox's Bazar.
"They agree everything, but unfortunately they don't act, that is the problem," Hasina said of Myanmar. "Everything is set but ... every time they try to find some new excuse," she told Reuters.
Myanmar has said it is ready to take back the refugees and has built transit centers to house them initially on their return. But it has complained that Bangladesh has not provided its officials with the correct forms. Bangladesh has rejected those claims and U.N. aid agencies say it is not yet safe for the refugees to return.
Given the delays, Bangladesh has been preparing new homes on a remote island called Bhasan Char, which rights groups have said could be subject to flooding. Cox's Bazar is also vulnerable to flooding but this year's monsoon season was light.
Hasina said building permanent structures for refugees on the mainland "is not at all a possibility [and] not acceptable" since they are Myanmar citizens and must return.
The Rohingya, described by the U.N. as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012. In a report, U.N. investigators said such violations may have constituted crimes against humanity.
The stateless Rohingya have been the target of communal violence and vicious anti-Muslim sentiment in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for years. Myanmar has denied citizenship to Rohingya since 1982 and excludes them from the 135 ethnic groups it officially recognizes, which effectively renders them stateless. The Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. However, most people in majority-Buddhist Myanmar consider them to be unwanted Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh