TEKNAF: Rohingya Muslims are fleeing Bangladeshi refugee camps to avoid a controversial drive to repatriate them to Myanmar later this week, where the UN says conditions are still not conducive to their return.
Authorities plan to begin returning Rohingya refugees, who have fled what the UN has called ethnic cleansing, to the Buddhist majority country from Thursday. But the prospect has created panic in the camps, prompting some families who were due to be among the first to be repatriated to flee, according to community leaders.
"The authorities repeatedly tried to motivate the ones on the returning refugee list to go back. But instead, they were intimidated and fled to other camps," said Nur Islam, from Jamtoli refugee camp.
More than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar's western Rakhine state following a military crackdown from August last year, bringing with them stories of murders, rapes and torture. They have joined some 300,000 Rohingya already living in squalid camps in Bangladesh's southeast for years.
Some 2,260 Rohingya are scheduled to enter Myanmar from Bangladesh's southeastern Cox's Bazar district in the first repatriations from Thursday.
Director general of Bangladesh's foreign ministry Delwar Hossain said the refugees would be repatriated in groups of 150 each day during the initial phase.
"Both sides have agreed to start repatriation on November 15," he told AFP on Tuesday, adding it remained a voluntary process.
Confusion and fear
But Nur Islam said the plan has created "massive confusion and fear" among the Rohingya and many were unwilling to return to Rakhine unless they were guaranteed citizenship and other rights.
An AFP correspondent was able to speak to three families who said they were due to leave this week.
"We are truly disturbed by the entire issue. As the day is coming closer, our tension is rising," Mohammad Khaleque, a Rohingya refugee told AFP.
He said he and his family were fleeing their camp for another makeshift Rohingya settlement in Cox's Bazar, in an effort to avoid being forcibly repatriated.
"I don't see a future for my family if we're forcibly sent back home right now without confirming that we would get full Myanmar citizenship," he said. "We don't want to go back like this."
But a small number of Hindus from Rakhine, who also fled the violence alongside the Rohingya, said they were ready to return if the passage was safe.
"We have prepared out bags. We would go today, if sufficient security was provided," said 60-year-old Jyotsna Bala Paul, one of roughly 400 Hindu refugees that community leaders say are ready to leave Bangladesh.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which received a list from the Bangladesh government on Monday to assess whether the refugees wanted to go back to Myanmar voluntarily, said the start date of November 15 was an "ambitious plan".
UNHCR senior spokesman Chris Melzer said "logistical problems" needed to be solved first.
"This is the matter of the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Although we still think that the conditions are not conducive now for the refugees to return in Myanmar," he told AFP.
The UN assessment may take at least two more days, according to both UN and Bangladesh officials.
Bangladesh refugee commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam said the country was ready to start repatriating the refugees via two transit points they have set up at the border.
An AFP team visited both the centres. One appeared complete while the construction of the second was "over 80 percent" finished, according to builders.
A Bangladeshi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that the Rohingya refugees were not "mentally ready" for returning.
"They often say to us they would rather die here in the (Bangladeshi) camps than to go back and embrace the harrowing pain they have already experienced," he said.