No Refuge for Myanmar’s Forgotten People

BANGKOK — 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 a “humanitarian crisis” of starvation and disease.

In a campaign that seems to have accelerated since October, the groups say, ethnic Rohingya refugees who have been living for years in Bangladesh are being seized, and beaten and forced back to Myanmar, where they had fled persecution and abuse and which also does not want them.

“Over the last few months we have treated victims of violence, people who claim to have been beaten by the police, claim to have been beaten by members of the host population, by people they’ve been living next to for many years,” said Paul Critchley, head of mission in Bangladesh for the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières.

“We have treated patients for beatings, for machete wounds and for rape,” he said, quoting a report issued Thursday. Some had escaped after being forced into a river that forms the border with Myanmar. “This is continuing today.”

Since October, he said, the unofficial Kutupalong Makeshift Camp with its dirt paths, flimsy shacks and open sewers has grown by 6,000 people to nearly 30,000, with 2,000 new arrivals in January alone.

They are among about 250,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, a Muslim minority from neighboring Myanmar, where they do not have citizenship and are subject to abuse and forced labor, and cannot travel, marry or practice their religion freely.

Despite the hardships, people are continuing to flee repression and fear in Myanmar, and when they are deported, many return, several people said.

About 28,000 of them have been recognized by the government and documented as refugees. They receive food and other assistance in a camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and have not been subject to the abuses and forced returns described by other Rohingya, said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the agency in Bangkok.

The government has not allowed the agency to register new arrivals since 1993.

Most Rohingya in Bangladesh have no documentation and struggle to survive, evading the authorities and working mostly as day laborers, servants or pedicab drivers. They have no rights to education or other government services.

“They cannot receive general food distribution,” Mr. Critchley said. “It is illegal for them to work. All they can legally do in Bangladesh is starve to death.”

The current crackdown is the worst they have ever suffered, according to aid workers and the refugees themselves.

“Over the last month and in Cox’s Bazaar District alone, hundreds of unregistered Rohingyas have been arrested, either pushed back across the border to Burma or sent to jail under immigration charges,” said Chris Lewa, referring to Myanmar by its other name. Ms. Lewa closely follows the fate of the Rohingya as director of the Arakan Project, which also issued a report this week.

“In several areas of the district, thousands were evicted with threats of violence. Robberies, assaults and rape against Rohingyas have significantly increased,” she said.

A risky route to a better life, by sea to Thailand and then to Malaysia for work, has been cut off after the Thai Navy pushed about 1,000 Rohingya boat people out to sea last year to drift and possibly to drown.

More than a year later, more than 300 are known to be missing and more than 30 are confirmed to have died, Ms. Lewa said. No boats are reported to have landed in Thailand in the recent post-monsoon sailing season.

“The brutal push-backs and the continuous detention of the survivors seems to have stopped the Rohingya from doing it again,” Ms. Lewa said. “That horrible action has had the effect of basically stopping people from leaving.”

In Bangladesh, the situation in the unofficial camp is becoming desperate, both aid workers and refugees said.

“We cannot move around to find work,” said Hasan, 40, a day laborer who lives with his wife and three children in a dirt-floored hovel made of sticks, scrap wood and plastic sheeting. He said he had no way to feed his family.

“There is a checkpoint nearby where they’re catching people and arresting them,” he told a photographer who visited recently. Like other refugees here, he asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals.

“We aren’t receiving any help,” he said. “No one can borrow money from each other. Everybody’s in crisis now.” People do what they can to survive.

“When I visit the camp,” Mr. Critchley said, “I see small girls going out in the forest to collect firewood, and we have treated young girls and women who have been raped doing this.”

In the Thursday report, Médecins Sans Frontières said that a year ago 90 percent of people in the makeshift camp were already “severely food insecure,” in other words, that they were running out of food.

“Malnutrition and mortality rates were past emergency thresholds, and people had little access to safe drinking water, sanitation or medical care,” the report said.

The overcrowded camp has become an incubator for disease, Mr. Critchley said, and with the monsoon season peaking in late March and early April, medical workers fear a lethal spread of acute diarrhea.

“International standards would assume that a latrine is shared by 20 people,” Mr. Critchley said. “With the number of latrines in the camp, over 70 people share each latrine. I’ve seen small children using piles of human feces as toys.”

The Rohingya know that they live at the very bottom of human society, that they are not wanted anywhere and that they are outsiders without legal standing or protection.

Abdul, 69, who has lived in Bangladesh for more than 15 years, said that these thoughts disturb his dreams.

“When I sleep I think that if someone kills an animal in the forest they are breaking the law,” he said. “They are caught and punished. But as human beings it isn’t the same for us. So where are our rights? I think to myself that we are lower than an animal.”


spotted by RS

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