Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh said Wednesday they did not want to return to their homes in Myanmar, raising doubts about a fresh attempt to repatriate the stateless, mainly Muslim minority.
On Thursday, Bangladesh and Myanmar were hoping to begin repatriating a few of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled a military crackdown two years ago, after a previous attempt in November failed.
Officials from the United Nations and Bangladesh's refugee commission have been interviewing more than 200 shortlisted families in the settlements in southeast Bangladesh to find out if they would return to Rakhine state.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam told AFP five buses and two trucks had been hired to take the refugees to a land port.
But several Rohingya interviewed by the United Nations told AFP they did not want to go home until their safety was guaranteed and they were recognised as citizens in the Buddhist-majority country.
"It is not safe to return to Myanmar," Nur Islam, a Rohingya Muslim who was among nearly 3,500 refugees earmarked for repatriation, told AFP.
Rohingya community leader Jafar Alam told AFP the refugees had been gripped by fear since authorities announced the fresh repatriation process.
They also feared being sent to camps for internally displaced people (IDP) if they went back to Myanmar.
A UN official who was part of the team interviewing the Rohingya cast doubt on when the repatriation might start, saying: "We have yet to get consent from any refugee family."
In New York, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday that repatriations had to be done in a "voluntary nature."
"Any return should be voluntary and sustainable and in safety and in dignity to their place of origin and choice," Dujarric told reporters.
"It's important for refugees to have the full information they need to be able to make that decision."
The UN Security Council met behind closed doors on the issue on Wednesday.
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in August 2017 from a military offensive in Myanmar -- joining 200,000 already there -- but virtually none have volunteered to return despite the countries signing a repatriation deal in late 2017.
The new push follows a visit last month to the camps by high-ranking officials from Myanmar led by Permanent Foreign Secretary Myint Thu.
Sunday will mark the second anniversary of the crackdown that sparked the mass exodus to the Bangladesh camps.
The Rohingya are not recognised as an official minority by the Myanmar government, which considers them Bengali interlopers despite many families having lived in Rakhine for generations.