Refugees in Burma, Malaysia and Thailand: Rescue for Rohingya

Brad Blitz, May 2010
The World Today, Volume 66, Number 5

For months monitors have reported on the crackdown against stateless Rohingya refugees in south eastern Bangladesh and allegations that the Thai Navy is pushing back boatloads of them in the Andaman Sea. As Burma, Bangladesh and Thailand all gear up for elections, these practices seem more common. One fear is that anticipated changes in Burma following polling there will send more unwanted Muslim migrants to seek refuge in neighbouring states.

In March, physicians for human rights documented the effects of overcrowding, denial of access to food, health, and work among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The Thai newspaper Phuketwan reported the disappearance of boats filled with Rohingya following naval activity near Phuket and suggested they had been intercepted and set adrift by the Thai Navy. Then, CNN and other media published claims that 92 Rohingya boatpeople had been chased out of Thai waters, only to wash up in Malaysia where they were detained.

Approximately 725,000 Rohingya are concentrated in North Arakan, also known as Rakhine state, a region of Burma that borders Bangladesh. No country will accept them as citizens, and they have suffered rape, forced labour and killings. Several hundred thousand have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and elsewhere in South Asia where they have received only very limited protection from nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Hundreds of thousands were expelled in the 1960s by the military-socialist regime of General Ne Win during the Burmese Way to Socialism nationalisation programme. Subsequent expulsions include the murderous ethnic cleansing campaign Operation Dragon King (Naga Min), which drove more than two hundred thousand Rohingya into Bangladesh in 1978, where an estimated ten thousand died from starvation and disease.

The source of the latest tragedy lies in the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Burma by a 1982 Citizenship Law which legalised their exclusion. Denied citizenship inside Burma, further discriminatory policies and an increasingly brutal regime, precipitated a series of refugee crises.

In 1991, the Burmese army expelled more than 250,000 Rohingya, destroying villages and buildings on its way, and forcing them into towns in southern Bangladesh, primarily around Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar. Three decades later, the Bangladeshi response has hardened with the government accused of withholding food aid, frustrating NGO access to camps, and with the exception of a small minority of Rohingya, generally refusing to recognise their rights as refugees.

As documented by Physicians for Human Rights, thousands of Rohingya refugees are now crammed in squalid settlements and only two, Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar district, have been designated by the government as official UNHCR assisted refugee camps where there is food, healthcare and education for the children. Just 29,000 of the estimated two hundred to four hundred thousand Rohingya in Bangladesh have been given refugee status. And this number of displaced people is growing as new refugee movements continue, fuelled by systematic repression in Burma.

Arriving migrants face a challenging reception in Bangladesh. Denied access to UNHCR supported refugee camps because the authorities describe them as economic migrants, new arrivals are immediately faced with the threat of removal. The government of Bangladesh has stepped up efforts to return large numbers of Rohingya to Burma after new conflicts erupted over the two countries’ 320 kilometres maritime border.

One of these conflicts was exacerbated following an agreement between the government of Burma and South Korea’s Daewoo International Corporation, which was granted oil and gas exploration rights in contested waters. Since then, increasing numbers of Rohingya living in the border area have been expelled by Bangladeshi forces.

Tensions worsened throughout 2008 and in March last year Rohingya labourers in Burma were forced to start construction of a two hundred-kilometre fence to prevent future ‘push backs’ of Rohingya into Burma.

One consequence of the tensions between Burma and Bangladesh has been the increased presence of Bangladeshi troops in the border region. Fearing arrest and abuse, thousands of Rohingya have flooded into makeshift camps, putting a strain on resources and the local community and threatening thousands with starvation.

In addition, developments in Burma have thrown up a new wildcard: the promise of elections. In a contradictory move, Burmese authorities have permitted Rohingya non-citizens to vote in the planned elections and started issuing temporary identity cards. The prospect of thousands of Rohingya voters in Arakan is not welcome to xenophobic and parochial interests, giving rise to fears of further destablisation. Bangladesh has responded to the anticipated tensions by continuing the forced removals of Rohingya before Burmese authorities complete the fence that is intended to seal off the area.

The Thai authorities have been equally inhospitable to the arrivals of refugees from Burma and Bangladesh. In 2008, the then Prime Minster Samak Sundaravej was reported as saying that Thailand would relocate Rohingya refugees to a deserted island.

Phuketwan journalists and the Arakan Project, a Bangkok based monitoring organisation, later raised the alarm about Thai security forces’ alleged practice of detaining Rohingya refugees on the remote Ko Sai Deang, before towing them out to shark-infested waters and abandoning them. Though challenged by the Thai government, recent press reports suggest that some of these practices have continued.

While Burma remains isolated, western and donor governments should call on the governments of Bangladesh and Thailand to stop the push backs on land and at sea. All receiving states in the region should ask the UNHCR to help determine the status of migrants from Burma and ensure that their human rights are respected, including access to aid and assistance. It is time for a regional plan for the Rohingya which addresses both the geo-political and domestic sources of their persecution.

Brad Blitz, Professor of Political Geography at Kingston University London, Director of the International Observatory on Statelessness.

Rohingya Song

UN examines mistreatment of Muslims in Myanmar

Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent

BANGKOK // A United Nations envoy has expressed deep concern about the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslims by the authorities. “There is no doubt that there is severe discrimination of Muslims,” the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said after visiting the west of the country where Muslims are concentrated.

During his five-day mission, Mr Quintana, an Argentine former labour rights lawyer, visited Sittwe, capital of northern Rakhine state, and Buthidaung, one of the state’s main towns and site of the most serious allegations of persecution and repression of the Muslims, often known as Rohingya.

This is the first time a senior UN envoy has been allowed to visit this region although the UN and international aid organisations do have projects and people in the area.

“There have been many allegations levelled at the authorities, so it was important for me to be able to see the situation firsthand,” he said.

While he was there he also visited a prison, which was a real revelation, he said during an interview on the weekend.

“The prison was full of women, some still nursing their young children,” he said. Most had been charged with immigration offences and received sentences of up to five years. But human-rights groups believe they are victims of the government’s ban on Muslims marrying.

“Men are often jailed for illegal marriages, but many, especially women, are arrested after travelling illegally [across the border] to Bangladesh to get married,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the situation of Rohingyas in the region.

The UN envoy raised the issue of the alledged ban on marriage with the authorities, both locally and in the Myanmar capital, Naypidaw, and received the same answer. Muslims, like everyone, have the right to marry, but they have to have the correct birth certificates and citizenship papers.

This is the crux of the matter, according to human-rights groups and aid workers who know the area and monitor the situation there.

“Myanmar’s Muslim minority are subject to systematic persecution: they are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok.

“The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country,” he said.

More than 300,000 Rohingyas are in camps or hiding in neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the persecution across the river in Rakhine, according to the UN. More than 700,000 Rohingyas still live in Myanmar.

Mr Quintana singled out Rakhine for his visit after persistent stories of persecution that included forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, travel restrictions, banned marriages and unregistered children. On his last visit to Myanmar, in 2009, his request to visit the area was denied.

Because the authorities refuse most Rohingyas permission to marry, many live together after a traditional Muslim ceremony. The children born from these couples are denied registration and citizenship – making them non-persons.

Mr Quintana took up the issue of citizenless children in his last report to the UN in November and pressed representatives of the regime on it again during this visit, but with little result.

“The issue of unregistered children is serious as their numbers keep growing,” Ms Lewa said. “What is the future of these children? Without being registered, they won’t be able to apply for a travel permit, marriage, and so on. They are all potential refugees.”

Mr Quintana’s visit to Rakhine was a significant concession by the regime. “I received a lot of independent information from various sources before I went there, and I find them very credible.”

The envoy said he did not have time to verify all the claims in the reports, but from what he saw he believed they were relatively accurate. “And I hope by visiting there I can help highlight the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims,” he said.

Overall, the UN envoy was downbeat about his trip. “Political prisoners, of which there are more than 2,100, will not be released anytime soon,” he said. “The government continues to deny that there are any prisoners of conscience in their jails.”

Mr Quintana wanted to impress upon the authorities that the release of all political prisoners before this years planned elections was essential if the electoral process was to be convincing.

“These are well-educated and capable people who could participate in the election and help make the whole process credible, I told the authorities,” he said.

Mr Quintana did not hold out much hope of change in Myanmar in the near future.

Myanmarese officials would not discuss the elections in detail even though it was evident that preparations for the polls were already in full swing. All that the men in charge of the elections would say was that the legal framework was being prepared and the electoral law would be finished in time.

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Bangladesh Pressures Rohingya after EU Visit

IRRAWADDY, BANGKOK — The Bangladesh authorities have renewed arrests and pushback of Rohingya refugees in the days following the departure of a European parliamentary (MEP) delegation from the region bordering Burma.

This comes despite a resolution asking that the arrests and deportations be ended and similar calls from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on the ground.

According to The Arakan Project, 68 Rohingya have been arrested by the Bangladeshi police and security forces since the MEPs left the country. Eight persons were put in jail with the remainder sent back to Burma, in violation of the principle of non refoulement which says that refugees should not be sent back to the country from where they fled without their consent and without guarantees for their security and rights

Arakan Project Director Chris Lewa told The Irrawaddy, “After the MEPs left, makeshift camp residents felt more secure and started going out of the camp to find work.” However, it appears that a police checkpoint that had been removed during the MEP visit was reinstalled in the meantime, and arrests have resumed.

Of the more than 230,0000 Rohingya thought to have fled to Bangladesh from Burma, only 28,000 are registered as refugees.

The UN refugee agency is restricted to working with those refugees recogized by Dhaka. Speaking to The Irrawaddy, spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said that UNCHR does not have a presence along the border and is unable to verify the arrests and push-backs since the MEP departure.

European parliamentarians and NGOs had previously called on the Bangladeshi government to cease “an unprecedented crackdown” on Rohingya refugees, now settled outside the two official camps in Cox’s Bazaar District near the Burmese border.

In recent months, around 30,000 Rohingya have gathered to form an unofficial camp at Kutupalong in the impoverished Cox’s Bazaar district of Bangladesh. They have sought safety in numbers to evade arrest and deportation back into Burma.

According to The Arakan Project, the MEP delegation visited Kutupalong official camp and the makeshift camp on the morning of Feb. 15 amid tight police security. They first toured the official refugee camp, before meeting with some makeshift camp residents. In the unofficial camp, refugees handed over petitions to the parliamentarians, despite warnings from the security forces not to attempt any form of demonstration. The group left Bangladesh on Feb. 17.

When approached by The Irrawaddy for an interview, the MEP delegation was unavailable to speak. However, an official pointed out that a European parliamentary resolution adopted on Feb. 11 stated that the government of Bangladesh must “immediately cease arrests, push-backs and forced displacement of the unregistered Rohingya population.” The resolution urged Dhaka “to recognize that the unregistered Rohingya are stateless asylum seekers who fled persecution in Myanmar [Burma] and are in need of international protection; and to provide them with adequate protection, access to livelihood and other basic services.”

Some analysts believe that the Rohingya refugee issue must be resolved first and foremost within Burma, where they are not recognized as an ethnic group and denied citizenship.

McKinsey told The Irrawaddy that “the root of the Rohingya problem lies in Myanmar,” but added that “the government has asked UNHCR to expand our work in the region, so people do not feel that they have to leave the country.” Since April 2009, the UN refugee agency has supplemented its work in northern Rakhine state to include bridge and hostel construction projects which aim to make life easier for Rohingya.

UNHCR helped issue about 36,000 ID cards in 2007 to Rohingya in Burma, said McKinsey.

“In 2008, and 2009, the government continued without our help to cover about 75 percent of eligible residents but has not provided us with updated figures,” she said.

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Bangladesh: Violent Crackdown Fuels Humanitarian Crisis for Unrecognized Rohingya Refugees


Stateless Rohingya people in Bangladesh are currently victims to unprecedented levels of violence and attempts at forced repatriation. Recent weeks have seen thousands of people arrive at Kutupalong makeshift camp as they flee what appears to be a violent crackdown on the Rohingya presence in the country. At its clinic in Kutupalong, in Cox’s Bazar District in the south of the country, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has treated victims of beatings and harassment by the authorities and members of the community. The victims are people who have been driven from their shelters throughout the district and in some cases forced back into the river which forms the border to neighboring Myanmar.

Since October 2009, the camp has grown by 6,000 people, with 2,000 of these arriving in January 2010 alone. Without official recognition, they are prevented from supporting themselves, and are not permitted to receive official relief. As the numbers swell, nearly 29,000 people find themselves camped on a patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them, posing a serious threat to health. Action is needed now to stop this humanitarian crisis.

MSF has delivered healthcare to the Rohingya and their host communities in Bangladesh since 1992.
Rohingya in Bangladesh

An MSF doctor examines a baby at the MSF project in Kutupalong makeshift camp.

For decades, thousands of Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority from Myanmar, have sought refuge in Bangladesh. Today, despite the well-known situation in their country of origin, just 28,000 of these are recognized as prima facie refugees by the Government of Bangladesh, and live in official camps under the supervision of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In sharp contrast, an estimated 220,000 others struggle to survive—unrecognized and largely unassisted. Despite fleeing the very same circumstances as their counterparts in the official refugee camps, these people are forced to live as illegal migrants, vulnerable to ill health, exploitation, and abuse. The agreement between the Government and UNHCR restricts the latter’s activities to the 28,000 registered refugees. And UNHCR, mandated to protect refugees worldwide, makes little visible protest at the injustice of this situation.

The majority of Rohingya in Bangladesh reside in Cox’s Bazar, an overcrowded and resource-poor area bordering Myanmar. While thousands of self-settled Rohingya have lived in the local community for years, they are largely perceived as a burden on already scant resources and a threat to the local job market through the provision of cheap labor. Their unpopularity, fuelled by the local media, makes them an easy punching bag for unscrupulous local politicians wishing to score political points.

No Man’s Land: Rohingya Trying to Survive in Bangladesh
MSF in Kutupalong makeshift camp

In 2009, MSF was alerted to a large number of unregistered refugees gathering in desperate circumstances on the periphery of the UNHCR-supported refugee camp at Kutupalong. When MSF made its first exploratory assessment in early March, it found more than 20,000 people, 90 percent of whom were severely food-insecure. Malnutrition and mortality rates were past emergency thresholds, and people had little access to safe drinking water, sanitation, or medical care.

In response, MSF immediately initiated an emergency humanitarian action, treating severely malnourished children, offering basic health care, and improving water sources and waste facilities. Within one month, MSF had enrolled more than 1,000 malnourished children in its therapeutic feeding program and treated around 4,000 under-five-year-old children in its outpatient department. Since then, the project has developed into a primary health care program, including outpatient and inpatient care and community outreach services, in accordance with the prevalent medical needs of people in the makeshift camp and surrounding area.
Violent crackdown on unregistered Rohingya
A Rohingya family struggles to survive at Kutupalong makeshift camp.

In June and July 2009, local authorities demolished shelters and forcibly removed inhabitants in an attempt to clear a space around the perimeter of the official UNHCR camp at Kutupalong. MSF witnessed first-hand the violence against unregistered Rohingya, and provided medical care for some of the victims. At the time MSF treated 27 people who presented at the clinic with violence-related injuries, the youngest being a five-day-old child who had been thrown to the ground.

Again, in October 2009, MSF began to receive unregistered Rohingya patients suffering from violence-related injuries in the Kutupalong clinic. This time patients told stories of being driven from their homes east of Cox’s Bazar in Bandarban District, many of the homes having been destroyed by the authorities. Some of the patients spoke of having been forced into the Naf River and told to swim back to Myanmar. In January 2010, patients started to arrive from Cox’s Bazar District with similar stories. To add to the brutality of the authorities, the Rohingya also suffer at the hands of the local population, whose anti-Rohingya sentiment is fuelled by local leaders and the media. Throughout this period, MSF has treated patients for beatings, machete wounds, and rape. This is continuing today.

‘’I thought I ran away to find shelter, but before even staying one week thieves came and robbed me of the money I had, cut us with machetes and wanted us to die. Where do I run to now?” one patient said while being treated for open wounds at the MSF clinic.
Humanitarian crisis at the makeshift camp

Today, scared and with nowhere else to go, Rohingya are arriving in the thousands at Kutupalong makeshift camp. Of those arriving at the camp, some are women travelling alone with children; their husbands having gone out to work, never to return. With no way of feeding their family, they risked arrest to travel to Kutupalong to seek protection in numbers.

“I used to think I had a home. But after two months of constant threats from people I lived with for 15 years since leaving Myanmar, I had to move. I felt sad and came to the makeshift camp. I lost my belongings, but my life and family comes first,” said another patient who had recently arrived at the makeshift camp.

Since October the camp has grown by over 25 percent—that is almost 6,000 people, with 2,000 of them arriving in January alone. With a total population of over 28,400, the unregistered Rohingya at Kutupalong makeshift camp now outnumber the total registered refugee population supported by UNHCR in Bangladesh. Without official recognition these people are forced to live in overcrowded squalor, unprotected and largely unassisted. Prevented from supporting themselves, they also do not qualify for UNHCR-supported food relief. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, the cramped and unsanitary living conditions pose significant risks to people’s health.
Forced back to Myanmar

Rohingyas in Bangladesh: Unwanted and Homeless

On October 24, MSF staff treated four refugees from the makeshift camp for trauma injuries. According to the patients, they had been stopped by police at night and asked to show their papers. They had none, and the patients were forced into a police van, beaten, and finally pushed into the Naf River and told to go back to their country. After hiding in the water for some time, they managed to return to the MSF clinic for help. In this case, the people had been able to make their way back to Kutupalong to seek medical care for the injuries they had incurred. However, reports of people being pushed back across the border to meet an unknown fate are many. Attempts at forced repatriation by the Bangladesh border security forces (BDR) are well documented by the local media, and are repeated in the stories of unregistered Rohingya throughout Cox’s Bazaar District. Such actions clearly go against the principle of non-refoulement as stated by international law.
History repeats itself

This is not the first time that MSF has witnessed large numbers of unregistered Rohingya gathering in desperate circumstances, vulnerable to ill health, exploitation, and abuse. In 2002, when MSF was working in one of the official camps, the police action “Operation Clean Heart” saw unregistered Rohingya violently forced from their homes, which led to the establishment of the original Tal makeshift camp on a swamp-like patch of ground.

This camp relocated, and in the spring of 2006 MSF started a medical program at the new site, where at the time around 5,700 unregistered Rohingya (a number that continued to rise) lived in atrocious, unsanitary conditions on a small strip of flood land in Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar District. After two years of providing humanitarian assistance, and following strong advocacy by MSF, which ultimately gained the support of UNHCR and the international community, the Government of Bangladesh allocated new land in Leda Bazar for around 10,000 people in mid-2008. Less than one year later, nearly 13,000 people were living in Leda Bazar Camp, their fundamental living conditions having changed little. Today, people continue to struggle to survive without recognition and opportunities to provide for themselves inside an increasingly hostile environment.

Ultimately, the plight of the unregistered Rohingya in Kutupalong and elsewhere in Bangladesh is part of a larger, chronic problem on which none of the relevant actors have chosen to act. Stemming from Myanmar, the issue has developed into a regional challenge on which the health and dignity of countless vulnerable people depends. In 2002, MSF organized a photo exhibition to mark 10 years of an unacceptable situation for these people who are, as one 19-year-old Rohingya described it, “caught between a crocodile and a snake”.

Incredibly, although another eight years have passed, nothing has fundamentally changed for the Rohingya. They remain trapped in a desperate situation with no future, vulnerable to neglect, abuse and manipulation, and to the kind of intense violent crackdowns they are suffering right now.
Urgent action by those responsible

Rohingya children receive some education inside the makeshift camp.

As the persecution of the Rohingya continues, and a humanitarian crisis intensifies, it is imperative that the Government of Bangladesh act immediately to stop the violence and provide this highly vulnerable people with the protection to which they are entitled. In addition, the Government of Bangladesh must stop the practise of forcing the unregistered Rohingya back to Myanmar in contravention of international law.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees needs to take greater steps to protect the unregistered Rohingya seeking asylum in Bangladesh. UNHCR must not allow the terms of its agreement with the government to undermine its role as international protector of those who have lost the protection of their state, or who have no state to turn to. To date, the absence of a clear UN policy to tackle the crisis has left large numbers of highly vulnerable people at risk; this is in spite of continued efforts by MSF to alert UNHCR to the humanitarian needs and unacceptable abuses taking place.

Regional powers have a key role in addressing the more fundamental problem. As the Thai boat crisis of 2009 made clear, regional solutions are needed to the situation of the stateless Rohingya. And the international community must support the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to adopt measures to guarantee the unregistered Rohingya’s lasting dignity and well being while they remain in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a densely populated country, in which the Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar districts are among the poorest. Strong competition over work, living space and resources is inevitable at a local level. To find ways to overcome these issues and ensure the provision of adequate protection and assistance necessitates strong financial and political support from donor and regional countries.

MSF has been providing health care in Bangladesh since 1992. Currently, in addition to the basic health care program in Kutupalong, MSF has opened a kala azar treatment program in Fulbaria Upazila, and runs a basic health care program in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. MSF also assisted tens of thousands of people affected by Cyclone Aila, which struck Bangladesh in late May 2009.

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