Monday, February 22, 2010

Bangladesh cracks down on Burmese Muslim refugees

Sunday, 21 February 2010 15:27 Larry Jagan

The Bangladesh authorities have cracked down on Burmese Muslim refugees seeking refuge from the brutal Burmese military regime. The police operation has created a major humanitarian crisis according to an aid agency working in the area, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Over the past few weeks thousands of unregistered Rohingyas have fled their temporary homes in Bangladesh and sought safety in a makeshift camp, where they have no food, inadequate shelter and cannot work, according to the Arakan Project which monitors the situation of Burmese Muslims throughout Asia.

The Rohinygas have sought refuge in a makeshift camp, Kuta Palong, near the Bangladesh border with Burma. The numbers in this camp have swelled to over 30,000 in the past six weeks, according to the Arakan project.

The makeshift camp has nearly doubled in the last four months, MSF told Mizzima. In January alone, 2,000 Rohinygas refugees arrived. “As we speak, more are arriving out of fear and facing an uncertain future,” warned Paul Critchfley, head of MSF’s mission in Bangladesh.

The camp residents do not receive food rations and cannot leave the camp to find work for fear of being arrested, beaten and forced back to Burma.

“Hunger is spreading rapidly among the already malnourished population in the makeshift camp, and a grave humanitarian crisis is looming,” Chris Lewa, the director of Arakan Proiject told Mizzima.

“If the Bangladesh authorities do not stop the crackdown on these refugees immediately, then there a significant risk of starvation,” she added.

Residents in Cox’s Bazaar – the main town in the border area with Burma – told Mizzima that police and security forces have been targetting Rohingya refugees for several months now.

Since the beginning of the year, Rohinygas settled outside the two official refugee camps have been harrassed, intimidated and beaten, according to hundreds of personal testimonies collected by the Arakan Project.

“Thousands have been evicted with threats of violence,” Ms Lewa told Mizzima. “Robberies, assaults and rape against Rohingyas have risen significantly,” she said.

Local Bangladeshi villagers have also been venting their anger against the refugees. Aid workers in the area also report Rohinygas being beaten with sticks and women being raped.

“We have treated hundreds of refugees in the camp for wounds from violent assaults and beatings,” said Mr. Critchley. “Many women have also been raped.”

The refugees all tell a similar stories. “We cannot find work and no one helps us,” said Nurul, a 75-year-old former farmer, who has been living in the Kuta Palong camp for more than a month now with his wife and four children and grandchildren.

“My daughter was raped by local youths one evening, when she was returning, after working as a maid nearby. She told the police and identified the cuplrits: but the police did nothing,” he said.

“I have spent all my savings and we have nothing to eat,” said Rafiq, a 50-year-old day labourer who is sheltered in the camp since the end of January with his wife and five children. “We cannot go out to find work because we will be arrested if we go out. I cannot sleep at night, and have nightmares about the police raiding the camp and handing us over to the Burmese authorities,” he added.

“I fear we will be sent back to Burma,” said another Rohingya refugee. “Since we were born, we have always been on the run!”

“More than 500 Rohingya have been arrested in the past few weeks, some have even been forcibly returned to Burma,” said Ms Lewa.

“They could be forced out at any moment, so they're basically holding their families together. You have a space of slightly larger than a bathroom that has six or seven people and attached to it is another bathroom, so you have two families living in this really crammed condition,” another MSF staff member, Vanessa Van Schoor, told journalists in Bangkok recently.

“Sometimes I am overwhelmed with fear,” said Muhamad, a 35-year-old day labourer. “Perhaps the Bangladesh government has a plan to gather all Rohingya in one place and send us back to Burma.”

However, a local district police chief, Kamrul Ahsan denied these allegations telling Mizzima that only those Rohingyas staying in the country illegally had been arrested.

Senior police officers in charge near the makeshift camp admitted that the authorities were conducting normal security operations, but only foreigners who entered Bangladesh illegally were being detained. Between mid-November and mid-February, more than 500 Burmese illegal immigrants were detained and returned to Burma, said a local police chief.

“This month we have arrested over 50, and sent them back to Myanmar [Burma]. It is an ongoing operation,” the local police chief in Kuta Palong, Rafiqul Islam told local journalists this week.

The crackdown, he said was prompted by the rise in the number of Rohingya refugees in the area – felling the forests and building shanty towns the Kuta Palong camp – and was an attempt to stem the flow of illegal migrants. “If we don’t stop them now, the floodgates will open wide,” he said.

There are an estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some of whom escaped from persecution in Burma in the early 1990s.

There are some 28,000 registered refugees in two camps, monitored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. These people receive food rations and health care. The others have to fend for themselves.

Human rights groups and aid workers estimate that more than 9,000 refugees arrived in Burma last year. In December the Burmese and Bangladesh governments agreed that 6,000 Rohingya refugees would be returned to Burma, though as yet none seem to have been sent back.

International organisations, however, fear that any repatriation programme would not be voluntary as most of the refugees do not want to go.

“Though I do not see any future here, it is worse in Burma,” said a 60-year male Rohingya who first fled to Bangladesh in 1992, but returned to his home in 1994 under the UN-sponsored repatriation programme.

“I stayed three years, but the extortion, persecution and travel restrictions forced me to flee again with my family more than 10 years ago.”

“I pray that one day Burma will be peaceful and that we can enjoy our rights,” he said. “Then I can return to my country.” Till then, he and most Rohingya refugees want to stay in Bangladesh; though the authorities may not let them.

The situation for Burmese Muslims in western Burma is intolerable. And the UK-human rights group Amnesty International (AI) characterised the situation there as perhaps one of the worst in the world.

There are an estimated 700,000 Rohingya in Burma, where they are not recognised as citizens and have no right to own land. They are also forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission.

“Discrimination in Rakhine State [where most of the Rohinygas flee from] is shockingly severe,” the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana told Mizzima after visiting the area last week.