BANGKOK—The United Nations refugee agency now says it will immediately expand its work in Burma’s northern Rakhine state, home to the Muslim minority Rohingya who have fled poverty and abuse to seek asylum in other parts of Asia.
The announcement followed a visit to Burma by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chief, Antonio Guterres.
...UNHCR’s current level of activities in northern Rakhine state does not correspond to the actual needs."
In a statement, the UNHCR said that Guterres had traveled to Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, near the Bangladesh border. He also visited Myeik, a southeastern port town on the Andaman Sea from which many Rohingya refugees are believed to have fled in boats.
Their plight sparked international concern amid allegations of abuse of the Rohingya by the Thai military.
“On the basis of his observations and the discussions held, the High Commissioner came to the conclusion that UNHCR’s current level of activities in northern Rakhine state does not correspond to the actual needs and a decision was taken to upgrade the program with immediate effect,” the statement said after Guterres left Burma late Thursday.
UNHCR and the Burmese junta agreed “on the importance of a continued presence of UNHCR in northern Rakhine state and the South East,” it said.
Critical areas in which to focus include health, education, water and sanitation, agriculture and infrastructure, it said.
“Frank and open discussions also covered all areas of concern to UNHCR, from prevention of displacement to voluntary return, registration and legal status, and improvements to economic and social conditions.”
An unwanted people
The Rohingya are denied citizenship under the laws of mainly Buddhist Burma and rights groups say they face official repression and poverty. Thousands more are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
A senior Burmese senior official in Hong Kong last month described the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres” and insisted that they should not be described as Burmese nationals.
The Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and number around 800,000 in Burma and Bangladesh, were the subject of a diplomatic frenzy after reports that the Thai military may have set hundreds of them adrift as they tried to flee poverty and hardship in Burma.
Thailand initially denied the accusations, but the Thai prime minister later said he believe there may have been “some instances” of abuse, according to media reports.
Human rights groups say the Rohingya have been harassed since the junta seized power in 1962. Neither Burma nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.
Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok called the plight of the Rohingya “the most brutal example of suppression committed by the Burmese military government [against ethnic minorities in Burma].”
“They are different on all fronts. Ethnically they are different from the Burman, religiously they are also different—they are Muslim—and we have an issue of racial discrimination as well,” Phasuk said in an interview.
“It is clear that they want to wipe out this ethnic minority group,” he said.
In 1992, 250,000 Rohingya, around one-third of their total population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh, citing persecution in Burma.
But Phasuk said the Burmese government still has a legal responsibility to look after and protect people living within its territory.
Phasuk urged Southeast Asian nations to share responsibility for protecting the Rohingya and called on the international community to contribute financial incentives to make neighboring countries willing to take them in.
He said that the number of Rohingya fleeing the Burma-Bangladesh border area to seek a better life has increased from the hundreds to the “high thousands” over the last five years.
“The Rohingya jump into boats, put their lives in the hands of human traffickers, travel a very perilous journey, and face very brutal treatment by the Thai navy and the Malaysian navy. Yet, they are still willing to take that risk,” Phasuk said.
“This means that the situation both in Burma and Bangladesh must have reached a point where they feel like everything can be sacrificed in order to get out of there.”
Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Produced by Joshua Lipes. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.