Bangladesh said Tuesday it was scrambling to build camps for Rohingya refugees in the southeast of the country, as an influx of people fleeing violence in Myanmar soared to 123,000, according to U.N. estimates, and international pressure on both countries intensified sharply.
Government officials and relief agencies said there hardly was space left at established camps to accommodate new arrivals spilling across the border, and they were trying to find new land to house the refugees as well as mobilize humanitarian aid for them.
The U.N.’s estimate of new arrivals in Bangladesh since Aug. 25 shot up to 123,000 Tuesday from 73,000 on Sunday. At least 58 people have drowned trying to cross the Naf River that separates the two countries, said Ali Hossain, the deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar district.
“They have been coming and coming. We are trying to convince them to stay at their homeland, Rakhine, but it is not always working,” Lt. Col. Ariful Islam, the commander of the Bangladesh Border Guard in Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Tuesday.
Before the violence in Rakhine exploded in late August, at least 400,000 Rohingya who fled past flare-ups in the neighboring Myanmar state were living in refugee camps and settlements scattered across districts in southeastern Bangladesh.
“Since Monday, we have erected new camps in Potubunia, in Teknaf, so that the newly arrived Rohingyas can stay there. As of Tuesday, more than 20,000 people have taken shelter there,” Islam said.
Authorities were looking for land in the Balukhali area in Ukhia, another sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, to build shelters for newly arrived refugees, District Magistrate Khaled Mahmud told BenarNews.
Mounting international concern
In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) expressed “grave concern” about the violence in Myanmar and the escalating humanitarian crisis in southeast Bangladesh.
“With hundreds of new refugees arriving every day, Kutupalong and Nayapara camps are at breaking point …,” UNHCR spokeswoman Duniya Aslam Khan said in a statement.
She said there was an urgent need for additional shelters and land to house the refugees and for coordination to ensure that “life-saving assistance gets to those who need it most.”
“Most have walked for days from their villages – hiding in jungles, crossing mountains and rivers with what they could salvage from their homes. They are hungry, weak and sick,” Khan said.
In Dhaka, Robert Watkins, the United Nations resident coordinator in Bangladesh, said U.N. agencies were trying to raise U.S. $18 million to meet the basic needs of new refugees.
“UNCHR is providing emergency assistance to those Rohingya who arrive in the two official refugee camps. IOM [the International Organization of Migration] is doing the same for those outside of the camps, including food, shelter, basic health, water and sanitation services,” Watkins told BenarNews.
In addition, the World Food Program, UNICEF, and UNFPA were concentrating on rushing food aid to the southeast, and delivering sanitation and health services, as well as hygienic and dignity kits for women, he said.
‘I heard that they were killed’
The violence broke out Aug. 24, when members of an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched multiple attacks on Myanmar police posts in the state.
Since then, Myanmar security forces and militias linked to them have been accused of targeting Rohingya civilians in mass killings. At least 400 people have been killed, including 370 insurgents, Myanmar officials said late last week.
Hundreds of Hindu families are among the tens of thousands of refugees pouring in from Rakhine. A Hindu woman, Bakul Bala, described how a band of masked men attacked her village in Maungdaw Township.
“The armed masked men whisked away my husband, Kalu Rudro, daughter, Sondhya Bala, and grandson Bappu. I heard that they were killed,” she told BenarNews.
In Brussels, Christos Stylianides, the European Union’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, called on all sides in the Rakhine conflict to de-escalate tensions and refrain from targeting civilians.
He also called on Bangladesh to allow refugees to come through.
“They must not be turned back or deported …. The assistance and protection of the Bangladeshi authorities regarding these new refugees is crucial until the situation in Rakhine State has stabilized and they can safely return,” Stylianides said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Reuters quoted H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as saying that the government was reviving a plan to move tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Thengar Char, a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
Indonesian, Indian diplomacy
The violence in Rakhine and rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis in Bangladesh was the focus of a flurry of diplomatic activity in several countries.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi held talks on Tuesday with Bangladeshi officials after arriving from Myanmar, where she pressured the government to end the violence in Rakhine.
“The security authorities need to immediately stop all forms of violence there and provide humanitarian assistance and development aid for the short and long term,” Retno said after taking part in meetings in the Myanmar capital, according to Reuters.
Also on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a visit to Myanmar, where the Rohingya issue figured on the agenda. Last month, his government announced that it planned to expel to Myanmar some 40,000 Rohingya people sheltering in India.
In Dhaka, Retno met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali to discuss the Rohingya issue.
At a news conference, Retno said Indonesia was ready to help “in easing the burden of the government of Bangladesh” in relation to the Rohingya crisis, but she gave no details.
Elsewhere, Turkey announced it was sending 1,000 tons of aid to Myanmar and dispatching its foreign minister to inspect the humanitarian situation in Cox’s Bazar. Last week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Myanmar of carrying out genocide against the Rohingya people.
And in Malaysia on Tuesday, the foreign ministry slammed Myanmar for doing little to stop the violence, saying it had summoned the Myanmar ambassador to voice its displeasure over this.
“Malaysia believes that the matter of sustained violence and discrimination against the Rohingyas should be elevated to a higher international forum,” Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in a statement.
The ministry said that Aman had spoken by phone on Monday with his counterparts from Iran and Turkey. The foreign ministers discussed the plight of the Rohingya, including a proposal to convene a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on this topic.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.