Bangladesh government accused of crackdown on Burmese refugees

Two separate reports this week have raised fresh concerns about the treatment of Burmese Rohingya refugees at the hands of Bangladeshi authorities. The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, have suffered a long history of persecution in Myanmar, and have been living in their thousands in south-eastern Bangladesh for decades. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international medical relief organisation, today released a report repeating previous criticisms of the treatment of Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and echoing concerns raised earlier this week in a report from the Bangok-based lobby group, the Arakan Project.

Both reports contain allegations that state security forces are intimidating Rohingya refugees in order to force them back across the border into Myanmar. MSF doctors report treating victims of severe beatings, apparently at the hands of state security forces. However, the chief of police in Kutupalong, the border town in which several Rohingya refugee camps are located, denied allegations of wrongdoing, and added that strong action is needed to prevent further mass immigration. “If we don’t stop them, the floodgates will open,” he told AFP.

Both reports also underline the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the overcrowded refugee camp in Kutupalong. Close to 30,000 unregistered refugees now reside in an unofficial camp, on the fringes of an official government refugee camp. Since October 2009, when the state crackdown is believed to have begun, 6,000 unregistered refugees have arrived at the unofficial camp. More than 2,000 are believed to have arrived in January alone. The reports highlight worrying levels of malnutrition and mortality, and the lack of adequate sanitation facilities for residents of the unofficial camp.

The openSecurity verdict: The Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority, are denied citizenship rights in Myanmar. Not only are they unable to find work or purchase land, they must also seek state permission in order to marry or to travel outside of their villages. Described by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya have been fighting for recognition as a separate ethnic group since before the Second World War. A succession of Burmese administrations has systematically attempted to force the Rohingya out of Myanmar.

Regular punitive crackdowns on Rohingyas in Myanmar have forced thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring countries over the last half century, but they have not been warmly received. In Bangladesh, for example, approximately 200,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar in 1978 due to an intensification in state persecution. However, the hostile reception they encountered over the border saw almost all of them return to Myanmar the following year. Over the years, repeated questions have been raised about Bangladesh’s treatment of fleeing Rohingyas in its south-eastern division. In the early 1990s, the UNHCR withdrew its support for the refugee camps in protest at the government’s treatment of the refugees.

Today there are estimated to be over 220,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, although only 28,000 are formally registered. The government continues to view them as illegal migrants who should be returned to Myanmar immediately. During diplomatic talks between the two countries in December last year, the Burmese government gave assurances that it would take back some 9,000 Rohingya refugees “soon”. Locally, their presence causes resentment about the strain on resources and jobs in one of the poorest regions in the country. In the past, there have been regular reports of violence against refugees perpetrated by Bangladeshi authorities, with police round-ups leading to forced repatriation or deportation. While the UNHCR works with the 28,000 registered refugees, it is not permitted to work with the vast, unregistered majority.

Rohingyas in Bangladesh are faced with an unenviable choice. Return to Myanmar and ever-increasing persecution is clearly not an option. Returning those fleeing the threat of death or persecution to their country of origin is a violation of international law. However, fleeing to another neighbouring country is also far from a desirable option for the Rohingya. Although the plight of this group regularly appears in the press releases of international rights groups, the Rohingyas meet only hostility from neighbouring governments. In early 2009, the Thai government came under fire for abandoning a boatload of Rohingya refugees on the open seas. It also refused to allow the UNHCR access to Rohingya refugees detained in Thailand, and prevented the agency from distributing food aid there. Malaysia and Indonesia, which also host large populations of Rohingyas, have also been accused of mistreating Rohingyas.

The situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh and other south and south-east Asian countries requires a more proactive approach from international agencies in host countries, to ensure that host governments abide by their obligations under international treaties and do not put this community in an even more vulnerable position.

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