More than 10,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have crossed the border into Bangladesh to flee violence that has escalated over the past two months, a United Nations official and a Rohingya community leader said Wednesday.
Bangladeshi authorities said they were now allowing some vulnerable refugees into the country on a humanitarian basis. Earlier, officials had stated that they were sealing the southeastern border with Myanmar and pushing back hundreds of people trying to cross over, despite reports of killings and the burning of Rohingya homes during a Burmese government crackdown in neighboring Rakhine state.
The exodus into Bangladesh from Rakhine is the largest since 2012, when thousands from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority escaped violence in the state between Muslims and members of the country’s Buddhist majority.
“Based on reports by various humanitarian agencies, we estimate that there could be 10,000 new arrivals in recent weeks,” Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman in for the U.N. refugee agency’s office in Bangkok, said Wednesday.
“The situation is fast changing and the actual number could be much higher.”
Hafez Ahmed, a leader of unregistered Rohingya in Kutupalang Camp in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, the number of refugees could be double the figure given by the U.N.
About 10,000 of the new influx of Rohingya were at his camp while others were spread out elsewhere in the southeast.
Another Rohingya leader told Voice of America (VOA), a sister entity of RFA, that many wanted to return to their old way of life.
“The Rohingya have been seeking temporary shelter in Bangladesh only to save their lives from a genocide-like situation in Myanmar. For most of us, life as refugees is very hard in Bangladesh. Arakan (Rakhine), where our Rohingya community has lived for centuries, is our ancestral homeland. We want to go back to Arakan,” said Mohammad Shaker, a Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar.
Since a Myanmar military crackdown began in Rakhine state in early October, Rohingyas were entering the country through remote, inaccessible border points, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hasan Mahmud Ali told reporters last week.
“And in some instances we have some very vulnerable cases that we could not ignore from the humanitarian point of view. We allowed them to enter and provided them food and treatment,” he said.
Commenting on the estimate from the U.N., Shahriar Alam, a state minister in Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said officials could not confirm how many new Rohingya refugees had arrived from Rakhine in recent weeks.
But, he told BenarNews, “we cannot say that the U.N.’s estimated number is not correct.”
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said Bangladesh wanted the Rohingyas to return to their homes in Rakhine.
“We shall try to host these people as long as possible. Then we shall start a dialogue with Myanmar so that they can return to their home. We hope Myanmar will take them back, eventually,” Kamal said.
Last week, Bangladeshi officials complained to the Myanmar ambassador about the violence in Rakhine, which in turn has led to street protests by Muslims in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand against Myanmar’s alleged persecution of Rohingya.
The targets of large-scale ethnic violence since 1978, Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh and other countries. As many as 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are in Bangladesh, according to government estimates.
“After the Rakhine Buddhists burned my house, with my two children and wife I fled to Bangladesh four years ago. I do odd day-wage jobs to support my family. Often I go without a job. I live in a ramshackle shack and I think I can never escape this life of poverty here,” Mohammad Ismail, a 38-year-old Rohingya, told VOA.
“I had my own farmland, I also owned a shop and I was quite well-off. If the situation there changes I want to return to Arakan.”
The government has denied accusations that soldiers committed extrajudicial killings, rape, and arson in Rohingya communities since the lockdown began. Security forces have arrested more than 400 people and killed nearly 70 others since the crackdown began, state media reported.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.