Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

Khaleda, 15, a refugee in Bangaldesh, 17 November 2008. Khaleda is one of 10 children, she was born a refugee. “I have spent my whole life in a camp,” she says. (c) UNHCR / S. Kritsanavarin

The specter of thousands of Rohingya refugees stranded in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea off mainland Southeast Asia will loom over Friday’s Regional Summit on Irregular Migration in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. The roots of this crisis lie in Myanmar, where the Rohingya have faced institutionalized discrimination for decades.

In the past three years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have boarded ships to flee abroad, to escape persecution in Myanmar. However, the issues they face are not new.


Myanmar: Repression at Home, Starvation Abroad

A 50-year-old refugee mother sitting beside a pot of rice that she got from begging – all the food her family of four will have for the entire day. Her husband was arrested by Bangladeshi police for stepping outside the makeshift camp at Kutupalong. She had not seen him in 15 days. (c) Physicians for Human Rights

A 50-year-old refugee mother sitting beside a pot of rice that she got from begging – all the food her family of four will have for the entire day. Her husband was arrested by Bangladeshi police for stepping outside the makeshift camp at Kutupalong. She had not seen him in 15 days. (c) PHR

For the first time in twenty years, Myanmar (Burma) is preparing for elections.  To prevent another loss to the National League for Democracy like in 1990, the military junta has begun its crackdown on opposition forces and passed new election laws in order to solidify a win this fall.  The new laws have not only annulled the results of the 1990 election, but have also banned political prisoners, civil servants and monks from being affiliated with political parties and thereby standing in the polls.  Much of the recent news coverage and the State Department’s release of the Human Rights country Report on Myanmar today, has focused on the domestic situation leading up to the elections and prospects for future engagement with the West.  All the while, the often catastrophic situation for Burmese refugees in neighboring countries has largely gone unnoticed.  Concerned about a large increase in refugees leading up to the election, the Bangladeshi government has decided to adopt questionable practices that violate human rights to dissuade an influx of Burmese coming across its border. 

Refugees Face Humanitarian Crisis
Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) new Stateless and Starving report, calls attention to the campaign of discrimination being waged by the Bangladeshi government against Rohingya refugees and the humanitarian crisis faced by refugees.  Although the number of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh is said to number between 200,000 and 400,000, there are only 28,000 officially registered refugees in jointly administered UNHCR and Government of Bangladesh camps.  Since Rohingya refugees were not granted protective status after 1993, the “illegal” refugees have been subject to arbitrary arrest, illegal expulsion, and forced internment.  In addition to these human rights violations, PHR has documented that the Bangladeshi government has been actively blocking humanitarian aid which has contributed to the squalid living conditions and malnutrition of Burmese refugees.

Physicians for Human Rights is asking everyone to participate in its online action  to end the expulsion of Burmese refugees and ensure the delivery of critically needed food aid. We need to make sure that if Burmese escape the repressive confines of their own country they are not facing the same discrimination and human rights abuses outside or are being forcibly returned to Myanmar where their human rights are jeopardized.

Crackdown on Refugees from Burma

The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is reporting that the Bangladesh government has launched a crackdown against the Rohingya community around the Cox’s Bazar district (see map).  The site of the crackdown is a makeshift camp of refugees in Kutupalong that is not recognized by the Bangladeshi government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has limited access to the area.  From MSF’s press release:

More than 6,000 people have arrived at the makeshift camp since October—2,000 in January alone,” said MSF Head of Mission in Bangladesh Paul Critchley. “People are crowding into a crammed and unsanitary patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them. They are prevented from working to support themselves and are not permitted food aid. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, we are extremely concerned about the deepening crisis.”

The Myanmar government (note that Amnesty International requires use of the UN-recognized name of the country widely known as Burma) refuses to acknowledge that the Rohingya are from Myanmar rendering them stateless.

MSF is asking that the UNHCR increase protections to these Rohingya seeking protection in Bangladesh.  At the moment, only 28,000 of the estimated 200,000 of the refugees in Bangladesh are recognized as refugees.  The result, in an already overcrowded and poor country, is that the Rohingya are vulnerable.  Human rights groups have been campaigning on the plight of the Rohingyas for a number of years, but Myanmar’s neighbors have grown impatient with the scale of the humanitarian need.  But, as MSF makes clear, 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.