One million Rohingya refugees – or the entire Muslim population of Myanmar’s Rakhine state – could flee from there to Bangladesh by year’s end, senior U.N. officials warned Thursday as they called on the international community to do more and be prepared in responding to a fluid humanitarian crisis.
So far, an unprecedented influx has seen almost 400,000 refugees pour into southeastern Bangladesh since Aug. 25 amid a resurgence of violence in Rakhine, U.N. officials told a press briefing in Dhaka, adding that this number could go much higher.
As many as 10,000 to 20,000 refugees were crossing the border every day, they said.
“We have to estimate the worst case is a scenario where everybody goes out [of Rakhine],” said Mohammed Abdiker Mohamud, director of operations and emergencies for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the U.N.’s migration agency.
Mohamud was responding to a question from a reporter for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on whether the two agencies feared that Rakhine’s entire Rohingya population could spill across the border, if reported atrocities targeting Rohingya civilians went on unabated.
“And we cannot just put our heads in the sand and think everything will be OK,” he said.
800,000 refugees in Bangladesh
The 400,000 refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh during the past three weeks represent more than a third of Rakhine’s Muslim population, based on figures in a report published last month by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a body appointed by Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The new arrivals also bring the total Rohingya refugee population in southeastern Bangladesh to more than 800,000, including those who fled earlier outbreaks of violence in Rakhine.
"[W]hat the country is facing is a quite serious humanitarian situation. As I said, 400,000 people in about two to three weeks is a very, very large number of people to have to respond to,” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner George Okoth-Obbo, who had toured refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh a day earlier, told reporters as he sat with Mohamud at the briefing in Dhaka.
“We all acknowledge that, while a lot of work has been done, there is a lot more which still has to be done. We have to step up the approach,” he said, although both officials commended Bangladesh for its efforts in letting in the wave of new arrivals, despite a huge number of refugees already sheltering in the southeast.
Asked whether the international community had done enough to respond to the situation, which U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday had described as “catastrophic,” Mohamud replied, “[M]y honest opinion is not yet. We like to see more be done.”
“Are we looking at 600,000? Are we looking 700,000? Are we looking at a million people arriving before end of this year?” the IOM official said, adding, “That is something putting all of us in a very difficult position in how we are going to respond to this crisis.”
When the influx began, humanitarian agencies originally predicted that as many as 80,000 refugees could cross into Bangladesh, but more than four times that figure have come over from Rakhine in less than three weeks, Mohamud said.
Also on Thursday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bangladeshi officials would call for the Rohingya problem to be resolved when she attends the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Hasina’s government has called on Myanmar to stop the violence in Rakhine that has pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh, and to take back all the refugees.
“Bangladesh has been confronting an unprecedented crisis to provide humanitarian assistance to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of Rohingya, and their repatriation to their own country,” Ali said in a statement, which was read out during a news conference at the foreign ministry.
“At this critical moment, Bangladesh will place its proposals at the General Assembly of the United Nations for the settlement of the Rohingya problem, raising the main causes of the crisis before the international community,” the minister said.
Diarrhea, other illnesses reported
Meanwhile, in southeastern districts of the country inundated by the wave of arrivals since late August, humanitarian agencies say they have been struggling to provide shelter and relief to refugees because the fast-moving volume of newcomers has strained resources.
According to a BenarNews correspondent in Cox’s Bazar district, the camps and makeshift settlements that are sprouting up on hillsides lack clean water and sanitation, and cases of diarrhea are spreading among the refugees.
“Eighty percent of the patients I have been treating are children and 90 percent of them have been suffering from diarrhea and fever,” Abdus Samad, one of two local volunteer doctors in the Tanbru area near the Myanmar border, told BenarNews on Thursday.
The International Committee of the Red Crescent has also been providing medical treatment to refugees in different parts of Cox’s Bazar.
“Over the last several days, our medical teams have given treatment to some 3,000 patients. Most of them have been suffering from diarrhea, fever and other diseases,” Dr. K.M. Abdullah Al Masud, a field officer with the Red Crescent, told BenarNews.
He attributed the outbreak of illness to a lack of clean drinking water and people defecating in the open.
“Diarrhea can spread in an epidemic form unless potable water and proper sanitation systems are put in place,” Masud said.
ARSA denies terror links
Across the border, Myanmar security forces and militia in Rakhine have been accused of targeting Rohingya civilians in atrocities such as killings and burning of Muslim homes and villages, according to eyewitness accounts from refugees arriving in Bangladesh.
Defending itself against the allegations, the Myanmar government has blamed an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), for much of the violence.
Coordinated attacks by ARSA insurgents on Myanmar border police posts in Rakhine on Aug. 25 triggered the latest cycle of violence.
On Sept. 10, ARSA declared a unilateral ceasefire for a month to allow humanitarian agencies and NGOs to deliver aid to affected parts of Rakhine, but Myanmar authorities rejected the offer of a truce.
On Thursday, ARSA issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” over reports of some 400,000 people having fled “horrors that are inhumane and beneath dignity of all human beings.”
The new statement came out two days after the global terrorist organization al-Qaeda announced that its fighters would come to the defense of Rohingya Muslims, according to security analysts, including BenarNews columnist Zachary Abuza.
“ARSA feels that it is necessary to make clear that it has no links with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria … Lashkar-e-Taiba or any other transnational terrorist group, and we do not welcome the involvement of these groups in the Arakan [Rakhine] conflict,” ARSA said.
“ARSA calls on states in the region to intercept and prevent terrorists from entering Arakan and making a bad situation worse,” it added.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.