Tens of thousands of Burmese refugees are being forced into makeshift camps in Bangladesh and face widespread starvation unless they receive more humanitarian aid, according to an international human rights organization’s report released on Tuesday.
The Physicians for Human Rights, based in Massachusetts, faulted Bangladesh authorities for “arbitrary arrests, illegal expulsion, and forced internment” of Burmese refugees as neighbouring Myanmar prepares for elections later this year. Since the 1990s, thousands of the refugees have made their way to Bangladesh from Myanmar, which had experienced unrest resulting from its military junta.
The report, “Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh,” also called the makeshift camps for unregistered refugees “open—air prisons” where children face severe malnutrition due to a lack of food aid and restricted movement outside of camps.
“The government of Bangladesh is absolutely ignoring it. They are sweeping it under the rug,” said Richard Sollom, director of research and investigation for the group based in Cambridge, Mass. “Basically, it’s the policy of the government that they simply want (the refugees) to disappear.”
In addition, Mr. Sollom said Bangladesh authorities are preventing outside humanitarian aid to get to the refugees.
Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s representative in the United Nations, termed that charge “totally false” and said government officials just have to make sure that any aid isn’t coming from terrorist groups.
“Bangladesh always stands by human rights,” said Mr. Momen. “(But) we are the victims. The Burmese people have been kicked out of their country and we gave them shelter. We are an impoverished country, and in spite of that, we tried to help them as best we can.”
Mr. Momen said the influx of refugees in Bangladesh is putting pressure on the country, roughly the size of Massachusetts, since it is already overcrowded with a population of 160 million.
Mr. Momen said there may be one or two “sporadic incidents,” but denied that there was widespread abuse.
“We are trying our best to keep them in good humour,” said Mr. Momen.
Last weekend, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, called for the repatriation of Burmese refugees back to Myanmar. She called media reports about the ill treatment of refugees “baseless and malicious.”
However, several international aid groups have protested against the treatment of the Rohingya in Bangladesh. Medecins Sans Frontieres—Holland said last month that a violent crackdown against Rohingya is forcing thousands to flee their homes, fearing local authorities and citizens who are trying to force them to go back to Myanmar.
“MSF is treating victims of beatings and harassment, including people the Bangladeshi Border Force has attempted to forcibly repatriate to Myanmar. As camp numbers continue to swell, conditions pose a significant risk to people’s health,” the group said then in a statement.
A Birmingham, U.K.—based aid group, Islamic Relief Worldwide, also pulled out of a makeshift refugee camp in southern Bangladesh on February 28 because the government did not permit them to work with nearly 13,000 unregistered Rohingyas receiving services there, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian news service, IRIN.
The Burmese refugee population in Bangladesh is estimated between 200,000 to 400,000, according to Physicians for Human Rights. The Bangladesh government and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees jointly administer two recognized camps with 28,000 registered refugees.
The group issued its report after Mr. Sollom and a team visited camps last month in Bangladesh and surveyed 100 refugee families.
The government of Bangladesh needs “to cease immediately from arbitrary arresting and forcibly expelling legitimate refugees and they do not have an administrative framework for determining refugee status as do most countries,” Mr. Sollom said.
“They need to allow the international humanitarian organizations full and unobstructed access because they are obstructing access right now,” Sollom said.
Physicians for Human Rights, founded in 1986, mobilizes health professionals to research conditions in war zones, U.S. prisons, immigration detention centres and others, according to its Web site. The group pushes policymakers to do something if they find unhealthy conditions.