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Oppressed people

February 22, 2010

A prominent aid agency has warned of a crackdown in Bangladesh on illegal Rohingya refugees. It's the latest in a vast catalog of abuse faced by the Burmese minority. Experts say the situation is unlikely to change soon.

Rohingya refugees eat at a hospital in Indonesia
A lack of documentation means the Rohingya are officially statelessImage: AP

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, released a report last week accusing Bangladesh of launching a violent crackdown against thousands of illegal Rohingya refugees in the country's south-east.

Bangladesh has denied the allegations. But the aid group says doctors at its clinic at a makeshift camp in the Cox Bazaar district close to Burma, also known as Myanmar, have treated the victims of beatings and harassment by the police and local citizens.

MSF says about 6,000 people have arrived in the squatter camp from other parts of south-east Bangladesh since October, when the alleged crackdown began.

"Deepening crisis"

The group warns that the violence is fueling a humanitarian crisis in the camp.

"People are crowding into a crammed and unsanitary patch of ground with no infrastructure to support them," Paul Critchley, MSF head of mission for Bangladesh, said in a statement. "Prevented from working to support themselves, neither are they permitted food aid. As the numbers swell and resources become increasingly scarce, we are extremely concerned about the deepening crisis," he said.

Rohingya refugees stand outside a camp in Indonesia
Rohingya refugees at a shelter in Indonesia after being rescued at seaImage: AP

The report highlights the latest misery suffered by the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority from Burma's remote western-most Rakhine state, also known as Arakan, along the border with Bangladesh.

The group, who speak a dialect of Bengali, are thought to be descended from Arab and other Muslim traders who travelled and settled there more than 1,000 years ago.

"Endless cycle of abuse and poverty"

Many agree that the Rohingya's Muslim status makes their situation a whole lot worse than that of other ethnic minorities in predominantly Buddhist Burma.

Burma denies the Rohingya citizenship, does not allow them to own land, travel or even marry without first seeking permission. They are often subjected to routine forced labor. Most are illiterate with little opportunities in the mountainous and poor Rakhine state.

Experts say the systematic persecution of the Rohingya by Burma's military rulers makes the ethnic group one of the world's most oppressed people.

"The authorities randomly destroy Rohingya houses, extract money and taxes from them, prevent them from leaving their villages and give them no chance of earning a livelihood or ever having any documentation," Bernhard Forster, an expert on Burma at human rights group Amnesty International in Germany, told Deutsche Welle. "The Rohingya are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse, poverty and repression."

"A forgotten people"

The dire situation has prompted many to flee Burma in the past decades and seek refuge in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Many take to the Andaman Sea to get to places like Thailand. Last year, Thai authorities were heavily criticized for towing out Rohingya boat people out to sea and leaving them there. More than a million are now estimated to be living overseas.

Shirtless Rohingya refugees eat food on an island in the Andaman Sea
There were dramatic scenes last year after Thailand towed Rohingya out to seaImage: AP

Bangladesh is the main destination due to its proximity to Burma. But conditions there are no better.

Of the more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, only about 28,000 have been registered as refugees by the UN and live in official camps. The rest live illegally in appalling conditions on the edges of Bangladeshi villages or in makeshift camps such as the one described in the MSF report.

Experts say their undocumented status, which shuts them off from employment, health care and education, has worsened their plight and largely shielded the issue from the public gaze.

"The illegal status of the Rohingya everywhere has made them more or less invisible," Ulrich Delius of the Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) in Goettingen told Deutsche Welle. "They've become a forgotten and stateless people."

Repatriations under fire

Aid groups blame both the governments in Burma and Bangladesh. Both countries, they point out, have not signed up to the Geneva Convention governing humanitarian treatment for refugees.

But criticism has also centered on the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) which runs the two official refugee camps for Rohingya in Bangladesh.

"The UNHCR has in the past together with Bangladesh's government sent undocumented Rohingya back to Burma where they face extreme persecution. That's because they want to show reduced refugee numbers," Delius said. "But that damages the organization whose stated aim is to protect refugees."

But the UN group has denied that it's forcibly repatriated Rohingya. It points out that that the government of Bangladesh hasn't allowed it to register further refugees.

A Buddhist monk with a megaphone
Protesting Buddhist monks in Burma in 2007 drew international attentionImage: picture-alliance/ dpa - Bildfunk

"Our position is that any return of any Rohingya to Burma must be strictly on a voluntary basis," Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR's press spokeswoman for Asia told Deutsche Welle.

In addition to those registered in Bangladesh, another 17,000 have been registered by the UNHCR in Malaysia, McKinsey said.

She pointed out that the agency also ran a program in Burma's Rakhine state to monitor the wellbeing of returned refugees and help improve their living standards.

West has little role to play

Most agree that the only way to find a permanent solution to end the plight of the Rohingya is to apply pressure on Burma's military junta to stop its repressive policies.

But experts remain skeptical that the West could play that role. The European Union has over the years provided funds to the UN to ease the grim conditions of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. But that doesn't give Western nations any clout with the junta on the Rohingya issue, some say.

"Frankly, the US and Europe have too little influence in Burma. So it doesn't really help if Europe simply protests against the treatment of Rohingya," Delius said. "Burma's neighbors who are also affected by the problem and in particular ASEAN (Association of South East Nations) must take steps to tackle it."

Business interests override human rights

But there is little sign of that happening. Experts point out that Burma's neighbors, and in particular India who they say should pursue credible policies given its own democratic character, are more eager to do business with oil-rich Burma than press it on human rights.

The coastal and mountainous Rakhine state where the Rohingya live is rich in natural resources. China has already secured the rights to a port in the region and is laying gas pipelines and building dams.

"There's a lot at stake here. This is about China's strategic interests. Nobody's interested in the Rohingya," Delius said.

That disinterest is the biggest problem. Experts say the Rohingya have no international lobby and not many aid groups working to better their lives.

"The Rohingya are probably the most friendless people in the world. They have nobody on their side," the UNHCR's McKinsey said.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge

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