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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Bangladesh government accused of crackdown on Burmese refugees

Source: http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/security_briefings/180210
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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Repression in Myanmar

Repression in Myanmar
Captive nation

THE generals who rule Myanmar do not care much for outside scrutiny. So the country is hardly fertile ground for Tomas Ojea Quintana, a United Nations envoy for human rights, who arrived on February 15th for a five-day visit to check on political prisoners and their beleaguered colleagues on the outside.

On the eve of his trip the junta freed one prominent detainee after seven years of house arrest. Tin Oo, a former army chief and co-founder of the opposition National League for Democracy, now aged 82, was detained in 2003 along with the League’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, after a pro-junta mob attacked their convoy, ending a political thaw.

Might Miss Suu Kyi’s release be next? Much hinges on the timing and scope of Myanmar’s long-awaited election, the first since an annulled 1990 vote won by the League. The junta has promised to hold polls in 2010 and return the country to semi-civilian rule. But there is still no election date and no rules laid down for political parties who want to contest. Some observers are predicting polls by October, one month before Miss Suu Kyi’s current term of house arrest ends. Her party is divided over whether to compete in the election.

As quickly as it empties, Myanmar’s gulag fills. On February 10th Kyaw Zaw Lwin, a naturalised American citizen, was sentenced to three years in jail for fraud, a ruling that the State Department criticised as politically motivated. Indeed, the gulag may be larger than had been previously thought. Exiled activists have identified over 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar’s jails, a number commonly cited by international agencies. But Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, reckons that the number is probably much higher. Ethnic minorities locked up in remote areas often go uncounted.

In a new report Amnesty found that activists in minority areas face predictably harsh retaliation from the authorities, including torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings. These violations are in addition to those meted out to civilians accused of sympathies to ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union, fighting along the Thai-Myanmar border.

By focusing on the war of attrition between Miss Suu Kyi and the junta, it is easy to overlook the role of ethnic minorities in opposition politics, says Mr Zawacki. Some pay a heavy price for their activism. Amnesty found cases of minorities punished merely for talking to exiled journalists. During his visit, Mr Quintana travelled to Rakhine state in western Myanmar to investigate alleged abuses, including of Rohingya Muslims. It was there, in the town of Sittwe, that 300 Buddhist monks marched in August 2007 in protest over fuel prices. It was the first act of defiance in what became the failed Saffron Revolution.

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Medical Aid Group: Burma Ethnic Minorities in Bangladesh Face Abuse, Humanitarian Crisis

Medical Aid Group: Burma Ethnic Minorities in Bangladesh Face Abuse, Humanitarian Crisis

Thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, members of a stateless, Muslim ethnic group that fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in Burma, leave Bangladesh aboard rickety boats each year in hopes of finding work elsewhere.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders says a violent crackdown in Bangladesh against migrants from Burma is fueling a humanitarian crisis. The group says thousands of ethnic minority Rohingya have fled to a makeshift refugee camp on the border with Burma where they live in squalid conditions.

Doctors Without Borders says stateless Rohingya in Bangladesh face unprecedented levels of violence and attempts to force them back to Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The aid group said Thursday that since October 6,000 Rohingya have fled to a makeshift refugee camp in Kutupalong, near the border with Burma, to avoid harassment and beatings.

Doctors Without Borders has a clinic at the camp and say its staff has treated Rohingya who were beaten by Bangladeshi people, including polices.

“Our patients tell us that in some cases they’ve been handed over to the Bangladeshi Rifles – the border force of Bangladesh – beaten, and forced to swim the river back toward Myanmar,” said Paul Critchley who heads the group’s Bangladesh mission.

The Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group, says in the last month hundreds of unregistered Rohingyas in Bangladesh have been arrested or forced back to Burma.

Critchley told journalists in Bangkok that Rohingya fleeing the violence are forced to live in the Kutupalong camp’s unsanitary and crowded conditions.

He says they live under plastic sheeting held up by sticks. They are not allowed to work and are in desperate need of aid.

“This crackdown must stop,” Critchley said. “This population desperately needs the protection that the Bangladeshi government needs to give it. As it is responsible for the protection and security of everybody within its borders. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has to do more to protect this population.”

Critchley says there are about 29,000 Rohingya now at the camp, but the numbers are fast increasing and the situation could get worse.

Doctors Without Borders says in January alone 2,000 Rohingya arrived at the camp seeking help.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Burma who are not recognized by Burma’s military government. For decades they have fled abuse and poverty in Burma.

There are an estimated 200,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh.

Doctors Without Borders says 28,000 are recognized as refugees and live in camps supported by the UNHCR. The rest, the group says, struggle to survive unrecognized and with little assistance.

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RIGHTS: This Time Around, Thailand Targets Karen Refugees

RIGHTS: This Time Around, Thailand Targets Karen Refugees
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 5, 2010 (IPS) – Thailand’s attempt to repatriate over 3,000 ethnic Karens who fled the conflict in military-ruled Burma last year has triggered strong local and international objections, including from 27 members of the United States Congress.

“We urgently request that you halt the repatriation of refugees back to Burma’s conflict zone and continue to offer them protection in Thailand,” stated the Feb. 4 letter by the bi-partisan group of U.S. legislators to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“If forced to return, these refugees will suffer horrific human rights abuses,” added the letter, whose signatories included Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the committee on foreign affairs. “They will undoubtedly be subject to forced labour, executions, torture and mutilations, forced recruitment as soldiers, and theft and extortion, making their survival very difficult.”

By Friday afternoon, Bangkok appeared to have caved in to some of this pressure, including the cries of concern from the Bangkok-based Lawyers’ Council of Thailand and the Karen Women Organisation (KWO).

“Because of concerns raised, we have decided to temporarily halt the process,” Thani Thongphakdi, deputy spokesman of the Thai foreign ministry, told IPS. “We have asked those who want to return to do so voluntarily, and today 12 Karens from three families went back.”

However, Bangkok views the ground realities in the Karen areas of Burma, or Myanmar, as it is officially known, differently from how the U.S. legislators and the KWO do. “Since the fighting on the other side of the border has stopped, we felt it is safe for them to return,” Thani revealed.

The temporary suspension of the Karen repatriation has done little to ease their anxiety, said Blooming Night Zan, joint secretary of the KWO, which is based in the north-eastern Thai town of Mae Hong Son. “The people are really scared. They fear they will be sent back soon.”

Part of such fear of return stems from the treacherous route the refugees will have to walk through once they enter Burma. “The fighting may be over, but there are a lot of landmines,” Zan said during an IPS interview. “Five people from the area have been injured by landmine explosions in recent months. One of them was a pregnant woman, (who was injured) in January this year.”

The flight of the Karen refugees from eastern Burma in June last year followed a round of fighting between Burmese troops and the Karen National Union, a rebel group that has been waging a separatist struggle for six decades.

The over 3,000 refugees who entered Thailand in 2009 added to the estimated 120,000 refugees, most of them Karen, who had been living in camps on the Thai side of the border for over two decades.

The ongoing conflicts in Burma is also behind the estimated 540,000 internally displaced people who have sought refuge in forests and mountains after fleeing attacks, including the burning of villages, by the Burmese army.

Little of this, however, appears to concern Thailand’s powerful International Security Operations Command (ISOC), a Cold War relic that was resurrected with new powers by Bangkok’s last junta, which came to power following a September 2006 coup and ruled till January 2008.

Among the powers of ISOC is to determine the country’s border policies with its four neighbours – Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. Permission for refugees from neighbouring countries to remain in Thailand or not is one of the powers of this institution, where the country’s powerful army chief hold sway.

“Thailand’s border policy has been placed in the hands of the military through ISOC,” said Sunai Phasuk, the Thai researcher of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The military’s interpretation of refugee policy is very narrow and not in compliance with international law and humanitarian standards.

“The military will open the country’s borders if people are fleeing conflict,” Sunai confirmed in an IPS interview. “But they don’t care if people are fleeing human rights violations, political persecution, religion persecution and oppression.”

Such increasing militarisation of Thailand’s border policy was brought into relief in late December last year, when some 4,300 ethnic Hmong who had fled conflict in Laos were deported in a military-style operation.

That deportation, which also provoked howls of protest from the international community, did not trigger a policy rethink by the one-year-old Abhisit administration, which came to power as a result of political deals shaped by the Thai military rather than through a popular mandate.

Bangkok dismissed criticism of being cold towards refugees by reminding the world of its impressive record of hospitality since the 1970s, when tens of thousands of refugees from the U.S. war in Indo-China fled to Thailand for safety. The South-east Asian country has, in fact, been home to some 1.5 million refugees over nearly four decades.

But until the powerful ISOC was resurrected, refugee policy was shaped by the prime minister’s office, the foreign ministry, the military and the national security council. “It was a delicate balance between these four that ensured a sense of checks and balances on refugee policy,” a highly placed Thai source said on condition of anonymity.

The first signs of a more military twist to refugee policy under ISOC emerged with Thailand’s treatment of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority fleeing persecution in western Burma. “It started after the coup when the military started to define the Rohingyas as a national security threat,” the Thai source added. “They were linked to the insurgency in southern Thailand because the insurgents happen to be Muslims.”

ISOC’s attitude towards the Rohingya refugees gave the Abhisit administration its first black eye soon after it came into office. The military was exposed in the international media of forcing back to sea boatloads of Rohingya refugees.

“ISOC has two clear policies about the Rohingya refugees,” said Sunai of HRW. “They should be intercepted before entering Thai territorial waters, but if they do, they should be arrested and detained.”


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