The UN rights chief said the return of Rohingya refugees was not currently possible due to concerns about their safety in Myanmar.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has told the UN human rights chief that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh have to return home to Myanmar, where they had fled waves of violent persecution.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet arrived in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Sunday and visited Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar district near the border with Myanmar.
“The Rohingya are nationals of Myanmar and they must be brought back,” Hasina was quoted as saying by her press secretary, Ihsanul Karim, on Wednesday.
The predominantly Muslim Rohingya community faces widespread discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship and many other rights.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August 2017, crossing the border into Bangladesh when the Burmese army launched a “clearance operation” against them following attacks by a rebel group. The security situation in Myanmar deteriorated following a military coup last year.
“Unfortunately, the current situation across the border means conditions are not right for returns,” Bachelet told reporters in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.
“Repatriation should always be carried out in a voluntary and dignified manner, only when safe and sustainable conditions exist in Myanmar.
After nearly five years of refugee crisis, Bangladesh has become increasingly impatient with the presence of its huge refugee population, and Bachelet expressed concern about “the increase in anti-Rohingya rhetoric” and the scapegoat of the community.
She added that many refugees fear for their safety due to the activity of armed groups and criminal gangs.
Security has been a constant issue in the camps, with murders, kidnappings and police dragnets targeting drug trafficking rings.
Two leaders of the Rohingya community were killed earlier this month, allegedly by an armed group active in the camps which has been accused of murdering political opponents.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Dhaka, said Bangladesh was “questioning Myanmar’s role” in returning Rohingya refugees.
“Several meetings down the road with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, but nothing really got done,” Chowdhury said.
Bangladesh said Myanmar had dragged on its promises to start the repatriation process, “meanwhile [Bangladesh] the environment is becoming increasingly hostile towards the Rohingya refugees,” Chowdhury added.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh requested china cooperation to repatriate Rohingyas to Myanmar during a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi. China had brokered a November 2017 deal with Myanmar to return refugees.
Hasina and several Cabinet ministers earlier expressed frustration at what they called Myanmar’s inaction to take them back under the deal. The UN and Bangladeshi authorities have tried at least twice to start repatriations, but the refugees have refused to leave, citing security concerns in Myanmar.
When Bachelet visited the camps on Wednesday, the refugees urged the UN to help improve security inside Myanmar so they could come back.
The UN said in a statement that the refugees had described “their grievances, their pains” to Bachelet.
“The UN is doing its best to support them. We will continue to do so,” she said. “But we also need to tackle the root causes of the problem. We must take care of them and ensure that they can return to Myanmar – when the conditions for security and voluntary return are met.
In March, the United States declared the oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar amounted to genocide after authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities against civilians by the Myanmar military in a widespread and systematic campaign against the ethnic minority.