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    World Refuge Day 2004 and Condition of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

    By Md. Sadek

    It is very much interesting and good opportunity to put views and opinion of refugees under the adopted resolution 55/76 of the UN General Assembly in 81st plenary meeting on 4 December 2000, which was granted from 21st February 2001 in the 50th Anniversary of the UNHCR to coincide an International Refugee Day with African Refugee Day on 20 June.

    According to UNHCR Press Release of 18th June 2004, this years’ theme is “A Place to Call Home” reflecting the continuing efforts of UNHCR and its partners to find lasting solution for millions of refugees and displaced people worldwide.

    The High Commissioner Rudd Lubbers mentioned numbers of refugees in a press release of 17 June 2004 as 17.1 million. In addition, there are more than 1.5 million undocumented Burmese Rohingya refugees across the world, particularly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. They are still waiting to return to their homeland, Arakan, Burma.

    According to the world refugee survey 2004, conducted by United States Committee Refugee (USCR), there are 120,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, 10,000 in Malaysia who recently left Burma from 1991-92 to early 2004. Survey also mentioned that the root cause of refugee exodus of the Rohingya people is that due to continued discrimination and oppression against them by the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC) and Buddhist Rakhine counterparts, an ethnic minority living in Arakan State. Violence between Muslim communities and Buddhist Rakhine has increased, resulting in the displacement of thousands of Rohingya. An estimated 6,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh fleeing religious persecution and ethnic discrimination during 2003. The 1982 citizenship law denied ethnic Rohingya citizenship, taking away their right to own land and limiting travel outside their townships, access to education, commerce, and jobs. The government, sometimes with the support of non-Muslim locals, confiscated their land and destroyed their Mosques. Rohingya were subjected to forced labor and other human rights violations including arbitrary arrest, extortion and targeted taxes, torture, rape and summary execution.

    According to Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), “Every one has right to nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied to change his nationality.” The UN’s 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless persons and 1961 Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness serve as the reference points for international consensus on principles to the problem of statelessness. Originally intended as a Protocol to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees, the 1954 Convention was adopted to cover those stateless persons who are not refugees and who are not, therefore, covered by the 1951 Convention. Now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Convention, the growing gap between rights and reality must be closed.

    According to Carol Batchelor, Senior Legal Officer for Statelessness of the UNHCR, “The problem is severe. No region hasn’t faced it,” Stateless persons can fall into any of the agency’s four reporting categories: refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and ‘others of concern.’ As such Rohingyas have option to accept anyone of the reported criteria elsewhere in the world and thus Rohingyas are taking refuge in neighboring countries for years.

    It may be mentioned that some more than 250,000 Rohingya crossed the border into Bangladesh in 1991-92. Since 1992, approximately 236,000 Rohingya (Muslims from the northern Burmese state of Arakan) have been repatriated voluntarily to Burma. An additional 22,700 have left the camps and are living among the local citizens. More than 19,000 refugees remained in 2 camps administered by the Government in cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These refugees are completely dependent on UN and aid agencies for food while thousands of undocumented Rohingyas refugees living in Bangladesh have no access to protection or humanitarian assistances as the UNHCR and Government of Bangladesh don’t accept or recognize them as refugees without any reasonable ground.

    By stepping up repatriation efforts and reducing assistance to refugees, UNHCR has created an environment in which protection for the Rohingya is virtually untenable. Methods of coercion which refugees reported to international community like Refugee International (RI) a reduction in certain basic entitlements, including food, withholding of medical services or pharmaceuticals, forced relocation within the camps to poorer housing, beatings, and, most commonly, threats of and actual jail sentences. These all are remarked more badly than homes in host country. The Amnesty International denoted in its report titled “Myanmar, The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied,” the coercion of repatriation coding from MSF (Holland) that received 550 complaints from Rohingya families varying from intimidation to direct threats of violence if they did not agree to return to Myanmar. Despite the pressures, the rate of refugee repatriation accelerated dramatically with 3,231 refugees being returned to Burma during the year 2003.

    Beginning in 1999, the UNHCR has urged the Government of Bangladesh to allow any refugees who could not return to Burma to work in the country, benefit from local medical programs, and send their children to local schools. The Government continues to refuse these requests, insisting that all Rohingya refugees must remain in the camps until their return to Burma. Refugees were forced to return to Burma where they fear persecution. There was a pattern of abuse of refugees. There were also claims of discrimination from the local population towards the Rohingya.

    The discrimination of local people towards Rohingya is remarkable that they attack refugee on various means and commit robberies on refugees. Some teenagers were kidnapped and systematic trafficking of children is continued. So, the Rohingya refugees feel themselves unsecured in the present living camps. They also don’t want refugee lives anymore. They are in need of durable solution for their long-standing problems of either Stateless persons or refugees.

    Besides, the Bangladeshi camps officials are trying to criminalize and terrorize the Rohingya refugees that no others country accept them for re-settlement. This is a kind of serious discrimination against the Rohingyas of Burma which some doubt a joint policy of SPDC and the Government of Bangladesh.

    In an effort to criminalize the refugees, the Camp-in-Charge accompanied by police entered inside the UN refugee camp, Kutupalong at mid night of 7th June 2004 to arbitrarily arrest some refugee elites. While refugees came to oppose the eve, the officials made open fire by which 3 refugees were reportedly injured.

    Regarding this, about 8,500 Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong have been refusing food rations demanding adequate protection and their full refugee status. The strike is still continuing but no international agency including UNHCR higher officials has visited the camp to solve the crisis.

    Similar crisis was occurred in 1998, when an old man namely Dil Mohammad at the same camp was killed by police, while refugees came to protest refusing their food rations. The camp officials terrorized the refugees by burning down of their makeshif huts into ashes and putting more than 100 of them in jail under criminal charges to whom UNHCR provide no legal assistance. Such kind of trauma is fear able for this time. So, the Asian Forum for Human Rights Development (FORUM-ASIA), Bangkok released a statement under the caption of “Violence feared against Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh” on 18th of June 2004.

    On the other hand, there are about 8,000 Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camp of Teknaf without any security. Local terrorists frequently attack them in various ways. One refugee woman was killed and 35 others injured on the 9th of June 2004 they also set the camp fire on 24th March 2004 in which many refugees were injured and their belongings burned down.

    A report of the US State Department dated 26th February 2004 that the Constitution of Bangladesh does not provide for the granting of asylum and refugee status to persons who meet the definition in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. In practice, the Government provided protection against refoulement but did not routinely grant refugee or asylum status. The Government granted temporary asylum to individual asylum seekers whom the UNHCR interviewed and recognized as refugees on a case-by-case basis. The Government also generally cooperated with the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. At the request of UNHCR, in 2002, the Government allowed approximately 125 refugees and asylum seekers, including non-Rohingya Burmese, Somalis, Iranians, and Sri Lankans, to remain in the country pending durable solutions such as voluntary repatriation or resettlement to other countries. The Government rejected asylum petitions from one Indian and four Burmese nationals who were released from prison in February 2002.

    From the above information, one can understand that the Rohingya only are not accepted for asylum or persons of UNHCR concern. It is a clear discrimination.

    In this connection, I would like to recommend to the international community, including Govt. of Bangladesh and UNHCR as follows:

    Accede to and implement the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of refugees.
    Accede to and implement the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
    Put pressure on the neighboring countries of Burma which are trying to improve friendship with military regime at the cause of Burmese peoples’ struggle for the restoration of democracy, human rights, equality and self-determination of all people of the country;
    Take immediate step for a durable solution of the Rohingya refugee problems;
    Ensure the adequate protection and all their rights with full refugee status until they have a secured place;
    Strengthen the role of the UNHCR in monitoring and implementing refugee protection;
    Refugees should have access to represent themselves at the forums of the international community.

    Author:  General Secretary of RYDF