[Written in collaboration with Dr. Nora Rowley]
When a widely circulated newspaper like the New York Times picks up the matter of ill-treatment of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, it is no small matter. It is a matter of grievous concern and shame to tens of thousands of Bangladeshi-Americans who live in and around the Big Apple state. In its February 20 publication the headline read, “Burmese Refugees Persecuted in Bangladesh.” It said, “Stateless refugees from Myanmar are suffering beatings and deportation in Bangladesh, according to aid workers and rights groups who say thousands are crowding into a squalid camp where they face starvation and disease.” It described the situation as a humanitarian crisis.
The NY Times report should come as no surprise to many of us who have been following the inhuman condition of the Rohingyas around the world for a number of years. In its Special Report, dated February 18, “Bangladesh: Violent Crackdown Fuels Humanitarian Crisis for Unrecognized Rohingya Refugees,” the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) criticized the Bangladesh government for violent crackdown against the stateless Rohingyas in Bangladesh. It was a chastising report in which the MSF called for an immediate end to the violence, along with urgent measures by the Government of Bangladesh and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to increase protection to Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in the country.
Last month the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) issued an emergency report, “Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh”. This report reveals a PHR emergency assessment of 18.3% acute malnutrition in children. This level of child malnutrition is “considered “critical” by the World Health Organization (WHO), which recommends in such crises that adequate food aid be delivered to the entire population to avoid high numbers of preventable deaths.” The extreme food insecurity causing this critical level of malnutrition is the direct consequence of Bangladesh government authorities’ restricting movement and, therefore, income generation of the Rohingya, and actively obstructing the amount of international humanitarian aid to this population.
Last week, the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT), an umbrella organization that includes the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), amongst other Muslim organizations in the USA, hosted a press conference in the National Press Club, Washington D.C. to discuss human rights abuses in Bangladesh. In his inaugural statement, Mr. Wright Mahdi Bray of the AMT brought up the squalid living conditions of the Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh. In the last few years we have raised the Rohingya issue a few times with Bangladesh government, but have failed to improve the deplorable condition.
Denied citizenship rights and subjected to repeated abuse and forced slave labor in their ancestral homes in the Arakan/Rakhine state of Burma by a xenophobic Buddhist government, where they cannot travel, marry or practice their religion freely, and betrayed and battered by their Magh Rakhine co-residents, many Rohingya Muslims have hardly any option left for them to survive with dignity other than seeking refuge outside. The neighboring Bangladesh to the north-west with her huge Muslim population and historical ties with Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, dating back centuries earlier during the Arakanese rule of those districts (1538-1666), provides a natural setting for seeking shelter. Thus, when the Burmese genocidal campaigns – Naga Min (1978-79) and Pyi Thaya (1991-92) – forced eviction of some 300,000 and 268,000 Rohingya refugees, respectively, to seek shelter outside it was Bangladesh where they ended up.
With the assistance of the UNHCR, Bangladesh repatriated most of those refugees back to Arakan. Still, however, tens of thousands of Rohingyas never returned, especially from the second batch of major exodus in 1991-92. The on-going Nasaka operation and targeted violence by the Rakhine Maghs inside the Rakhine state have also forced many Rohingyas to leave their ancestral land and return again to Bangladesh. Many of those refugees have often used Bangladesh as a transit point to seek better shelters elsewhere. Many of the Rohingyas have ended up in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and also in Pakistan.
As noted recently by Syed Neaz Ahmad in a New Age article, the late King Faisal’s kind gesture to offer the fleeing Rohingyas a permanent abode in Saudi Arabia is no longer respected by the new rulers who have restricted their employment and movement within the Kingdom. According to him some three thousand Rohingya families are in Makkah and Jeddah prisons awaiting their deportation. It is good to hear that the Pakistan government has agreed to take these unwanted refugees. (Islamabad can also do a noble job, albeit a delayed one for the past four decades, in taking some 300,000 stranded Pakistanis – living a miserable life in camps in Bangladesh.)
There are some 13,600 Rohingyas registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia, an estimated 3,000 in Thailand, and unknown numbers in India. Small number of Rohingya refugees also lives in Japan, Australia and the USA. The total number of Rohingya refugees living inside Bangladesh today is not known. The UNHCR stopped documenting the Rohingyas after 1991 as they shifted their focus to Africa and Eastern Europe. From my contacts within the Rohingya leadership, the estimate is around 400,000. Of these refugees, only 28,000 are recognized as prima facie refugees by the Government of Bangladesh and live in official camps under the supervision of the UNHCR. The official camp has everything: primary schools, a computer learning centre funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, health care centers, adult literacy centers, supplementary food centers for children and pregnant women.
Except a handful of wealthy Rohingyas who have been able to settle comfortably within the big cities, the rest of the refugees struggle to survive unrecognized and largely unassisted and unprotected, living in dire humanitarian condition with food insecurity, poor water and appalling sanitation. They live mostly in and around Cox’s Bazar and the Hilly districts of Chittagong. Some of the unfortunate refugees have also ended up living in slums of big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong. As reported by the MSF and the Amnesty International, these Rohingya refugees are treated as unwanted folks and have faced repeated beatings and harassment, including forcible repatriation to Myanmar. Many refugees, who had been repatriated to their country in the past, had entered Bangladesh again as they did not find any development and change in the attitude of the Myanmar authorities.
Some Rohingya refugees live at a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, south of Cox’s Bazar. Last June and July the local authorities destroyed 259 homes in that makeshift camp to clear space around the perimeter of the official UNHCR camp at Kutupalong. There was a crackdown in October in Bandarban District, east of Cox’s Bazar, forcing many Rohigyas to take shelter in the makeshift camp in Kutupalong. In January 2010, another crackdown followed the refugees living in Cox’s Bazar District. To add to the brutality of the authorities, the Rohingyas also suffer at the hands of the local population, whose anti-Rohingya sentiment is fuelled by local leaders and the media.
This was not the first time that this kind of problem emerged for the fleeing Rohingyas. In 2002 during the police action “Operation Clean Heart” many Rohingyas were violently forced from their homes, which led to the establishment of the original Tal makeshift camp on a swamp-like patch of ground. This camp relocated, and in the spring of 2006 MSF started a medical program at the new site, where at the time around 5,700 unregistered Rohingya lived in awful, unsanitary conditions on a small strip of flood land in Teknaf in the Cox’s Bazar District. After two years of providing humanitarian assistance, and following strong advocacy by MSF, which ultimately gained the support of UNHCR and the international community, the Government of Bangladesh allocated new land in Leda Bazar for around 10,000 people in mid-2008. Less than one year later, nearly 13,000 people were living in Leda Bazar Camp, their fundamental living conditions having changed little. According to the MSF, these people continue to struggle to survive without recognition and opportunities to provide for themselves inside an increasingly hostile environment.
With a total population of over 28,400, the unregistered Rohingya at Kutupalong makeshift camp now outnumber the total registered refugee population supported by the UNHCR in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has repeatedly stopped registration of those unfortunate refugees living outside the official camps. Without official recognition these people are forced to live in overcrowded squalor, unprotected and largely unassisted. Prevented from supporting themselves, they also do not qualify for the UNHCR-supported food relief. And sadly, the UNHCR, which is mandated to protect refugees worldwide, makes little or no visible protest at the injustice of this situation.
According to the MSF, the UNHCR is guilty of not taking the return of the Rohingyas as a priority issue. The Office of the UNHCR must take greater steps to protect the unregistered Rohingya seeking asylum in Bangladesh. The UNHCR must not allow the terms of its agreement with the government to undermine its role as international protector of the Rohingyas who have lost the protection of their own state - Myanmar, and have no state to turn to. Any failure to protect the Rohingyas inside and outside Myanmar is simply not acceptable.
We are told that as a poor country, Bangladesh faces a dilemma about the Rohingya refugees. If she shows too much flexibility a huge influx may occur, while being harsh creates concern among international community. Nevertheless, Bangladesh government’s forced repatriation of the refugees against their wishes is simply inhuman and violates international humanitarian laws. It must be immediately stopped, failing which its international image may suffer terribly. It must also stop all harassment against the Rohingyas. Temporary residency permits should be provided to the refugees so that they can earn their livelihood like any other Bangladeshi. There is nothing worse than a forced poverty which leads to crime and other serious problems. Should the refugees choose to leave Bangladesh for a third country the government should not hinder that process either. It must also make all diplomatic efforts to find shelters for these stranded refugees in sparsely populated and prosperous countries of Europe and North America, and the Gulf states.
The Rohingya refugees remain trapped in a desperate situation with no future in Bangladesh. These unfortunate people are caught between a crocodile and a snake: neither the xenophobic SPDC regime wants them back in Myanmar, nor does the Bangladesh government want them to stay because they are largely perceived as a burden on already scant resources. Outside China, none of the neighboring countries of Burma has ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This must change by ratifying those conventions.
As the Thai boat crisis of 2009 made clear, regional comprehensive solutions are needed to the situation of the stateless Rohingya. The international community must support the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to adopt measures to guarantee the unregistered Rohingya’s lasting dignity and well-being in Bangladesh.
[Dr. Rowley is a medical doctor who as part of MSF worked with the Rohingya people inside Arakan. She is currently affiliated with the US Campaign for Burma.]