Pressure is mounting on the Bangladesh Government to cease what European Parliamentarians and NGOs are calling “an unprecedented crackdown” on Rohingya refugees now settled outside the two official camps in Cox’s Bazaar District near the Burmese border.
As Dhaka clamps down on Rohingya refugees, local anti-Rohingya sentiment—never far from the surface in a relatively-poor region of Bangladesh—has been whipped-up by the authorities and by local media.
The recent crackdown in Bangladesh risks creating a humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of refugees who already face precarious living conditions.
“All they [Burmese Rohingya] can legally do is starve,” said Paul Critchley, mission head for Médecin Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Bangladesh.
Speaking at a press conference in Bangkok on Thursday, Critchley said women and girls have been raped leaving the camp to collect firewood, which they hope to sell and earn some meager resources for their families.
MSF said it is imperative the Government in Dhaka and the UNHCR do more to help the unregistered Rohingya, whose living conditions are getting worse as they are crowding into a crammed, unsanitary area without any support infrastructure.
MSF, which is operating a basic healthcare program at an unoffical camp at Kutapalong in Ukhia, said, “As camp numbers continue to swell, conditions pose a significant risk to people’s health.”
Around 30,000 Rohingya have flocked to the makeshift camp.
Of an estimated 230,000 Burmese Rohingya refugees thought to be in Bangladesh, only around 28,000 are registered as refugees and receive UNHCR-led assistance. The rest try to survive unaided and unprotected in villages and slums in south-eastern Bangladesh.
A report released earlier this week by The Arakan Project entitled “Unregistered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: Crackdown, forced displacement and hunger” says the refugees at Kutupalong have fled there to evade arrest or being pushed back into Burma.
The report adds that “In several areas of the District, thousands were evicted with threats of violence. Robberies, assaults and rape against Rohingyas have significantly increased.”
Last year, some Rohingya were controversially pushed-back to sea from Thailand after arriving by boat from Bangladesh. The recent clampdown could see renewed Rohingya boat movement despite the risk the refugees incur if they try to get to Thailand or Malaysia by sea.
The Director of the Arakan Project, Chris Lewa, told The Irrawaddy that some boat movement had already started, but the destination of the refugees was difficult to trace and remained unclear.
The resolution urges Dhaka “to recognize that the unregistered Rohingyas are stateless asylum seekers who fled persecution in Myanmar and are in need of international protection; and to provide them with adequate protection, access to livelihood and other basic services.”
However, the Rohingya issue requires a broader regional and international approach, starting with the treatment of the Rohingya in Burma itself, where they have fled oppression by the army.
Around 800,000 Rohingya live in the western Burmese Arakan region, which is also known as Rakhine State.
Denied citizenship in what for many Rohingya is their homeland, they face physical and sexual abuse by the Burmese army, as well as onerous restrictions on travel and work opportunities, even to the point of having to go through a mountain of red tape just to get a ‘marriage permit,’ a process which can take years.
Myat Kraw, an editor of the Bangladesh-based Arakanese news agency Narinjara News, told The Irrawaddy that Bangladesh cannot solve the problem without the Burmese government’s help: “Bangladesh has requested the military government to bring back Muslim refugees to Burma from Bangladesh.”
Kraw added that Bangladesh has concerns about recognizing all the Rohingya as refugees as this would entice more to cross from Burma. The Burmese junta is currently building a border fence along the frontier with Bangladesh.
According to its web site, the European Commission allocated over €600million in aid money to Bangladesh between 2003-6,, with a further €200million to be spent between 2007-10. In some cases this is separate to bilateral assistance given to Bangladesh by individual European states.
Given the scale of development and humanitarian assistance provided by Europeans to Bangladesh, Lewa feels the parliamentary delegation can use their visit to make a strong statement in support of the Rohingya refugees. “They are in a good position to challenge the Government on this,” she said.