The repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar will not begin as planned, Bangladesh said Monday, with authorities admitting “a lot of preparation” was still needed.

Bangladesh had been due to start the huge process on January 23, after agreeing a two-year timeframe with Myanmar.

But Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam announced Monday there was much more work to be done.

“We have not made the preparations required to send back people from tomorrow. A lot of preparation is still needed,” Kalam told AFP.

Since August last year around 688,000 Muslim Rohingya have escaped over the border into Bangladesh in the wake of a military-led campaign in Rakhine state that the UN says amounted to “ethnic cleansing”.

They poured into ill-equipped and overcrowded camps, bringing with them harrowing tales of rape, murder and torture at the hands of Myanmar’s feared army or Buddhist mobs.

After a global outcry, which included loud criticism of Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the two countries agreed earlier this month that the refugees would be returned to Myanmar in a process they said would take around two years.

Rights groups and the UN have said any repatriation must be voluntary. There are reports that many Rohingya settlements have been burned to the ground.

Bangladesh has sought to assure the international community that only those wishing to go back to their homelands in Rakhine would be sent back and that the process would involve the UN’s refugee agency.

But on Monday refugee chief Kalam said transit centres still needed to be built, and work remained to be done on the “rigorous process” of approving lists of those entitled — and willing — to return to Myanmar.

“Without completing this, we cannot send these people back all of a sudden. This work is ongoing,” he said.

He gave no revised start date but said two sites near the border had been identified for possible transit sites.

Bangladesh was “very keen” for the process to begin as soon as possible, he said, but added much work was outstanding on Myanmar’s side including housing reconstruction and safety arrangements.

“Neither side is ready for the real movement to begin now,” Kalam said.

– Angry protests –

The repatriation deal covers more than 750,000 refugees who have fled since October 2016, but does not include the estimated 200,000 Rohingya who were living in Bangladesh prior to that, driven out by previous rounds of communal violence and military operations.

Refugees have protested at the prospect of return, with many saying they fear the campaign of atrocities is not over in Rakhine.

Local authorities in Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh on Monday stopped hundreds of protesters from marching on one large camp, with an organiser detained by the Bangladesh army, Rohingya leaders told AFP.

In recent days refugees have gathered by the hundreds chanting slogans and holding banners, demanding citizenship and guarantees of security before they return to Rakhine.

“It doesn’t matter if it starts tomorrow, in three months or a year later,” said 35-year-old Rohingya refugee Nurulla Amin upon learning that repatriation had been delayed.

“What matters is our rights, our demands and if they are actually met.”

Five senior Rohingya leaders met UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee in the Cox’s Bazar district late Sunday and handed her a list of demands before repatriation would be considered.

“We do not want to go back home because we have not got our rights,” community leader Abdur Rahim, who met Lee during her tour of the camps, told AFP.

Tensions have been rising in the overcrowded camps as the deadline for repatriation loomed.

Two Rohingya representatives have been murdered in the past three days, police said Monday, including one described by local media and community leaders as pro-repatriation.

Rohingya militants at the weekend said the repatriation plan would trap the Muslim minority in long-term camps while their ancestral lands are seized.

Most refugees live in squalid camps in Cox’s Bazar but an estimated 6,500 are stranded in a so-called no man’s land between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Kalam said Myanmar could take back these refugees “as a token of their seriousness” about the agreement, as they were not on Bangladeshi soil and therefore not part of the official repatriation.