WASHINGTON—The U.N. refugee agency must protect a Burmese ethnic minority who have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution, according to an organization that monitors health and human rights.
The Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said in a report that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) must “assert its mandate to protect and assist” Muslim Rohingya who are languishing in an unregistered refugee camp in Bangladesh.
The report also called on the UNHCR “to press the government of Bangladesh to allow humanitarian aid to flow unhindered to the Rohingya and to launch a coordinated appeal to donor nations for humanitarian relief and protection for this neglected population.”
“Thousands of Rohingya who fled intolerable persecution in Burma now face equally bleak conditions in Bangladesh, because the government there has refused to recognize their status as refugees,” said Richard Sollom, director of research and investigations at PHR.
“What will it take to get them the aid they need to survive?”
PHR said the Bangladesh government must end its arrest and forced repatriation of Rohingya into Burma and end a campaign of ethnic incitement against the group within its borders.
It condemned the Bangladesh government’s failure to protect the refugees, as well as human rights violations in Burma that have caused an estimated 300,000 Rohingya to cross the border to the north.
Sollom said PHR hadn't yet spoken directly with Bangladesh officials but planned to do so this week in Washington.
According to PHR and Rohingya asylum-seekers, Rohingya in Bangladesh are being beaten, jailed, and deported.
A growing number of Rohingya refugees in a second unofficial camp, known as the Kutupalong Makeshift Camp, lack food and are being harassed by local authorities and residents when they leave the camp to seek supplies.
The Bangladeshi government has registered only 28,000 Rohingya, who receive protection, humanitarian assistance, and food rations from U.N. agencies and international NGOs.
But since 1993, the government has denied 200,000 subsequent Rohingya arrivals official refugee status, making them ineligible for U.N. aid and protection.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni on Sunday asked the UNHCR to resume repatriation of "all Myanmar [Burmese] refugees in the soonest possible time," refusing to discuss options for the group’s integration into Bangladesh.
The foreign minister said Burma’s military regime had already agreed to take back all refugees confirmed as Burmese nationals.
“It shows a complete lack of understanding of her government’s legal obligations towards these people, as well as a complete lack of awareness of the reality [or the situation],” Sollom said in response to Dipu Moni’s statement.
Sollom said the Bangladesh government is worried that extending aid to the refugees would “open the floodgates.”
Bangladesh has not signed on to the UNHCR refugee treaty, which outlines the rights which are afforded to refugees.
The PHR report findings detail how refugees in the makeshift camp face death from starvation and disease because the government of Bangladesh is denying them access to humanitarian aid.
PHR interviewed 100 households from Feb. 11-13 and found that more than 18 percent of children under five years of age are suffering from acute malnutrition, which qualifies as a “critical” situation by World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
Unsanitary conditions at the camp had left more than half of the children suffering from diarrhea over the past 30 days and many refugees reported that they had not eaten for two days.
One Rohingya in the camp, who asked to remain anonymous, told PHR that she can never be sure how she will be obtain food for her family.
"My 10-year-old son died four months ago from starvation, and now my daughters cry every night for food. I leave home twice a day to beg for food and money, and the rice in this pot is all we have."
Another refugee said her husband had been arrested while working as a rickshaw driver in the local town of Cox’s Bazar.
"He has not been home in 25 days. At first, I did not know where he was. The next day, the newspaper said he was arrested while walking to work with 36 other Rohingya men, in Ukhiya town. Many local people saw the Bangladeshi police round up our men and arrest them. He did not commit a crime. They say if we pay 10,000 taka (U.S. $150) per person, our husbands will be released," she said.
"I am scared. I have not eaten in two days. My eight- and two-year-old daughters are out begging for food. If they don’t release my husband, how will my children eat?"
A third Rohingya refugee interviewed by PHR spoke about being forcibly repatriated to Burma by local police officers after begging for food in town.
"On the way, the police stopped the truck I was in. They told everyone to get out. The police said the Rohingya had to stay. There were 10 women and two old men. The eight Bangladeshis got back in the truck and drove off. Two armed police in uniform and two local men then forced us into their truck and drove us to the Balukali border crossing," the refugee said.
"When we got there, the police yelled at us to get out of the truck. There were old people who couldn’t move fast enough, so they beat them. I was carrying my two-year old son and couldn’t move fast either, so the police beat me with a big cane stick. They hit me hard on my arms and legs. My little boy fell to the ground. They kept pushing me and shouted, “Go back to your country! You don’t belong in ours!”
"The police watched us until we were inside Burma, and then they left. We were crying. When it got dark, we crossed back. We were too afraid to stay in Burma."
Thousands of refugees
The Rohingya are denied citizenship under the laws of mainly Buddhist Burma, and rights groups say they face official repression and poverty.
The Rohingya themselves say they are Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Pathan traders, who migrated to Burma as early as the 7th century A.D. But their ethnic identity isn't widely recognized.
In 1992, 250,000 Rohingya, around one-third of their total population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh, citing persecution in Burma.
Rights advocates estimate that the number of Rohingya fleeing the Burma-Bangladesh border area to seek a better life elsewhere has increased from hundreds to thousands over the last five years.
The Rohingya take to the sea for a dangerous voyage in boats, putting their lives in the hands of human traffickers and facing brutal treatment by the Thai and Malaysian navies when they arrive, advocates say.
The Rohingya have been leaving Burma and heading mainly into impoverished Bangladesh since the late 1970s. The biggest influx occurred in 1992.
Original reporting by Joshua Lipes and by RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.