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Bangladesh won’t send Rohingya back to Myanmar because ‘no one wants to go’

Click to play video 'Trudeau says repatriation of Rohingya without support is not best solution' Trudeau says repatriation of Rohingya without support is not best solution
WATCH ABOVE: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded Thursday to reports of forced repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, saying repatriation without assurances and support is "not necessarily the best solution" and said Canada is working with the UN and other partners to keep them safe – Nov 15, 2018

The head of Bangladesh’s refugee commission said plans to start the repatriation of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar on Thursday were scrapped after officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press, adding that officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

The announcement came after about 1,000 Rohingya demonstrated against returning to Myanmar, from where hundreds of thousands fled army-led violence last year.

WATCH: Rohingya in Bangladesh protest efforts to send them back to Myanmar

Click to play video 'Rohingya in Bangladesh protest efforts to send them back to Myanmar' Rohingya in Bangladesh protest efforts to send them back to Myanmar
Rohingya in Bangladesh protest efforts to send them back to Myanmar – Nov 15, 2018

At the Unchiprang camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, another Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

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“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Bangladesh authorities had attempted to begin the repatriation of the Rohingya, despite calls from United Nations officials and human rights groups to hold off. According to a UN-brokered deal with Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Rohingya cannot be forced to repatriate.

READ MORE: UN says it’s too early to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar

The countries had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

The huge exodus of Rohingya began in August last year after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the operation led to accusations from the international community, including the UN, of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

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READ MORE: Rohingya at ‘serious risk’ if forced to return to Myanmar, UN warns

Despite assurances from Myanmar, human rights activists said Thursday the conditions were not yet safe for Rohingya refugees to go back.

“Nothing the Myanmar government has said or done suggests that the Rohingya will be safe upon return,” Human Rights Watch refugee rights director Bill Frelick said in a statement.

The group said 150 people from 30 families were to be transferred to a transit camp on Thursday, but the camp was empty except for security guards.

Bangladesh authorities have said they’ve worked with the UN refugee agency to compile lists of people willing to return to Myanmar.

WATCH BELOW: Oxfam urges halt to Rohingya repatriation

Click to play video 'Oxfam urges Myanmar, Bangladesh  to halt Rohingya repatriation' Oxfam urges Myanmar, Bangladesh to halt Rohingya repatriation
Oxfam urges Myanmar, Bangladesh to halt Rohingya repatriation – Nov 11, 2018

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

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“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees whose names have appeared on the Bangladesh government’s repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers.

READ MORE: How Burmese rubies may be supporting Myanmar's military regime

Negotiations for repatriation have been continuing for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back to Myanmar’s Rakhine state were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, have criticized Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

WATCH BELOW: Canadian MPs vote to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of honorary citizenship

Click to play video 'Canada MPs vote to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of honorary citizenship' Canada MPs vote to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of honorary citizenship
Canada MPs vote to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of honorary citizenship – Sep 28, 2018

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the UN “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.”

READ MORE: Reports of looming Rohingya return to Myanmar have Canadian ministers ‘deeply concerned’

In addition to those who arrived in Bangladesh last year, about 200,000 other Rohingya had fled Myanmar during previous waves of violence and persecution.