DHAKA: A senior Bangladesh cabinet minister has accused Myanmar of obstructing efforts to repatriate roughly 750,000 Rohingya refugees, saying it was unlikely the displaced Muslims would ever return to their homeland.
Finance minister A.M.A Muhith said the repatriation deal signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November would likely fail despite his government's official stance that the refugees must eventually go back.
"I do not believe the Rohingya can be sent back," Muhith, an outspoken minister from the ruling party, told reporters late Tuesday in Dhaka after meeting with a British charity.
"You can speculate that very few will return to Burma. The first reason is that Burma will only take a few and secondly is that the refugees will never return if they fear persecution," he added, using another name for Myanmar.
Bangladesh insists the repatriation process will go ahead, last month submitting to Myanmar the names of 8,000 refugees expected to return to Rakhine state where the Muslim minority has been persecuted for generations.
But the plan has courted controversy from the outset.
Rights groups and the UN have warned that conditions for their return are not close to being in place.
Refugees living in camps in southeastern Bangladesh have also resisted the idea, fearing they will not be safe if they return to Rakhine.
Close to one million refugees from the persecuted Muslim minority live in squalid camps in Cox's Bazar, having fled successive waves of violence in Myanmar's westernmost region.
Under the agreement, the first of a proposed 750,000 returnees were scheduled to begin crossing the border in late January.
But the process stalled, with Myanmar and Bangladesh blaming the other for a lack of preparedness for the huge undertaking.
Muhith said Myanmar would "take 15 a day when there is one million", referring to the Rohingya in camps strung along the border.
"They (Myanmar) are absolute evil," he added.
A UN human rights envoy said Tuesday that Myanmar was continuing its "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya with a "campaign of terror and forced starvation" in Rakhine state.
Rohingya are still streaming across the border from Rakhine state more than six months after a Myanmar army crackdown sparked a massive refugee crisis.