Burmese refugees face starvation in Bangladesh

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 12, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Thousands of Burmese Muslim refugees at an unofficial refugee camp in Bangladesh are facing starvation and acute malnutrition as the government continues to block international humanitarian aid, according to Physicians for Human Rights, a humanitarian watchdog group.

PHR said in a report this week that the Bangladesh government has stepped up a crackdown against the nearly 300,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees outside the camps over the past six weeks and is sending them back to their native Myanmar.

Some families in the unregistered Kutupalon camp haven't eaten for days and are borrowing money, often at exorbitant interest rates, to survive, the report said.

"There is an immediate need for food ration for the Rohingya refugees," said Richard Sollom, the PHR researcher.

He said Bangladesh authorities are "going out of their way to arrest and expel the refugees" prior to elections this year in neighboring Myanmar, fearing they will provoke another exodus.

According to Refugees International, a long-established advocacy group in Washington, the plight of the Rohingya, Muslim minorities who fled western Myanmar, or Burma, over the past 20 years, is extremely serious.

"The Rohingya issue might well be the most desperate, immediate refugee situation in Asia right now," Joel Charny, the acting head of the organization, told McClatchy.

Sheikh Mohammed Belal, the deputy chief of mission at Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, denied a crackdown was under way against the Rohingya, but acknowledged there might be "some arrests" because of infractions of the law, such as the illegal cutting of trees.

He said Rohingyas sometimes come into conflict with local people for access to overstretched resources but added there was "no animosity" toward the refugees.

"One has to appreciate the fact that despite acute resource strain, we are hosting these people for decades," he told McClatchy, but these are "marginal and peripheral issues."

Sollom said life outside the camps is equally tough for the refugees, however. There is a growing antagonism toward them, fueled by an "anti-Rohingya resistance" steered by the political elite and editorials in local newspapers.

The State Department wouldn't comment directly on the PHR report.

"The issue of Rohingya refugees is complex, with strong international dimensions," said Fred Lash, a State Department spokesman.

The U.S. last year gave $1 million to charities assisting the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and $13.2 million to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for work in South and East Asia, a part of which goes to Bangladesh.

Charities that have worked with the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, however, painted a stark picture of their treatment.

Islamic Relief Worldwide, a British-based humanitarian organization, was forced to halt its relief efforts in the district of Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, last month when the government refused to extend permission to stay.

"Islamic Relief has been managing the camp amidst tensions between the refugees, local community and local authorities," said Ruqaya Izzidien, a spokeswoman. "Our staff have also come under attack, which has made it difficult for us to continue managing the site."

The PHR study, based on interviews with 100 families in the Kutupalong camp, found that 18 percent of the children in the makeshift camp have acute malnutrition, a level the World Health Organization calls "critical." Somalia has the world's worst malnutrition rate at 20 percent.

The makeshift camp has grown up around the UNHCR camp, where 17,000 unregistered refugees live. More are pouring into the squalid camp.

UNHCR runs another camp housing 11,000 at Nayapara in Cox Bazaar district.

Open sewers and lack of proper sanitation are turning the place into a disaster zone as more people crowd into the camp, PHR said.

The area's only clinic, operated by Doctors Without Borders, treats patients with wounds and starvation as well as rape victims.

It, too, is stretching its resources as it caters to the unregistered refugees in addition to the registered refugees and the local population.

Sollom said the crackdown on Rohingya refugees living outside the camps is forcing them into the unofficial camp. The Society for Threatened Peoples, a German humanitarian watchdog group, said about 1,160 Rohingya refugees were arrested since January and most of them were deported to their homelands. Dhaka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which prohibits forced repatriation of refugees.

The lack of basic needs is turning the camp into a "looming crisis waiting to explode," Sollom said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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