Saturday, March 6, 2010

Burma Refugees' Travails Don’t End in Bangladesh

Burma Refugees' Travails Don’t End in Bangladesh

Bangkok. Stateless refugees from Burma 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 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, beaten and forced back to Burma, which they had left to escape persecution and abuse.

“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, who runs the Bangladesh program for the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders.

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

Since October, Critchley 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 arrivals in January alone. They are among about 250,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, a Muslim minority from Burma, where they do not have citizenship and cannot travel, marry or practice their religion freely, and are subject to abuse and forced labor.

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

About 28,000 of them have been recognized by Bangladesh and documented as refugees. They receive food and other assistance in a camp administered by the UN 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,” 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 reports from aid workers and the refugees themselves.

A risky route to a better life, by sea to Thailand and then to Malaysia for work, was 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, 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,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for the Rohingya.

“That horrible action has had the effect of basically stopping people from leaving.”

In Kutupalong, the situation at the camp is becoming desperate, 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. “Everybody’s in crisis now.”

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 those thoughts disturbed his dreams.

“When I sleep I think that if someone kills an animal in the forest they are breaking the law,” he said. “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.”

The New York Time