In just two weeks, a quarter of the entire Rohingya Muslim population of Myanmar’s Rakhine state has fled to Bangladesh amid surging violence, according to sharply revised estimates from the United Nations.
An estimated 270,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into Bangladesh’s southeastern region since Aug. 25, U.N. officials said Friday in releasing updated estimates that reflected a leap of more than 100,000 from the day before.
Bangladesh’s government has called the fresh influx of Rohingya seeking shelter on its territory unprecedented, saying it is struggling to cope with the flood of new refugee arrivals from neighboring Rakhine.
“In the last two weeks an estimated 270,000 Rohingya refugees have sought safety in Bangladesh,” Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in Geneva, said in a statement.
The new number reflects findings of an inter-agency assessment carried out in southeastern Bangladesh on Wednesday and Thursday, Khan later told BenarNews in an email.
“Teams from different U.N. agencies and NGOs identified new pockets of arrivals that we were not aware of previously, including in local communities and spontaneous settlements that have sprouted on available land,” she said.
Combined with a refugee population that fled earlier cycles of killings and burnings of villages in Rakhine, the new number means that close to 700,000 Rohingya refugees are concentrated in southeastern Bangladesh, where camps and settlements for displaced people are overflowing and humanitarian resources are being stretched very thin, according to U.N. and local officials.
“Amid a dramatic increase in the number of refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state, UNHCR calls for urgent action to address the root causes of the recent surge in violence, so that people are no longer compelled to flee and can eventually return home in safety and dignity,” the statement from the U.N. agency said.
“The limited shelter capacity is already exhausted. Refugees are now squatting in makeshift shelters that have mushroomed along the road and on available land in the Ukhia and Teknaf areas,” it added.
The vast majority of refugees waiting to board wooden fishing boats to cross the Naf River over to Bangladesh were women and children. They were exhausted and hungry after having trekked through jungles and mountains for days as they fled the new cycle of violence in Rakhine, the U.N. agency said.
Sons burned alive: Refugee
The violence broke out Aug. 24, when an insurgent group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) mounted attacks on Myanmar police posts in Rakhine.
That same day, a nine-member Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, appointed by Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, released a report on the situation in Rakhine. It noted that the state’s Muslim population numbered around 1 million, which represented a third of Rakhine’s overall population.
As of Friday, at least 88 people had died since the influx began on Aug. 25 – mostly from drowning – after their boats overturned while crossing the Naf, according to Bangladeshi authorities.
Abu Bakkar, a Rohingya refugee from Dragar Dailpara in Rakhine state, said Myanmar soldiers killed his four sons when an army unit raided their village on Sept. 1.
“They pushed them into a room, locked it from outside and set the house on fire. All of my sons burned into ash,” he told BenarNews.
Bakkar said he and three of his relatives survived because they were outside when the attack occurred.
“If we were at the house, we would die like Abu Syed, Abdul Khaleque, Abul Boshor and Abdur Razzaq,” he said, referring to his sons.
He and three surviving relatives hid out for days, and made it into Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, on Friday.
“We have taken shelter at a school as we have no relatives here,” he said.
‘A politician through and through’
The military and security forces of Buddhist-majority Myanmar, as well as militia groups, have been widely accused of targeting Rohingya civilians in the new wave of violence.
“The Rohingya are facing attacks, murder and persecution in Myanmar …. We strongly protest and condemn it” Ashok Barua, the leader of an association of groups from Bangladesh’s Buddhist minority told BenarNews, as its members demonstrated in Dhaka on Friday.
Members of Bangladesh’s Buddhist minority form a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka to protest against violence targeting Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Sept. 8, 2017. [Newsroom Photo]
In Myanmar, authorities have blamed ARSA insurgents for the acts of violence, including setting fire to villages in Rakhine.
On Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch released satellite images that showed 450 buildings being destroyed by fire in a primarily Rohingya neighborhood of Maungdaw township, the administrative seat of Rakhine state, on Sept. 2.
The rights watchdog also issued a statement saying that fleeing Rohingya had described “killings, shelling, and arson in their villages that have all the hallmarks of a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her longtime efforts in leading Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, this week deflected worldwide criticism over her apparent silence on alleged abuses being committed against the stateless Rohingya in Rakhine.
She said this was the result of a “huge iceberg of misinformation.”
The Myanmar government has said that 432 people, mostly ARSA insurgents, have been killed since the fighting flared on Aug. 24. But, on Friday, a senior U.N. official challenged that assertion and took Suu Kyi to task, saying that more than 1,000 people had died in the new wave of violence in Rakhine.
“What we forget is that she is a politician through and through. People expect her to have that big high moral voice but she’s a politician, and what’s the most important objective if you are a politician? Getting elected,” Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar told Agence France-Presse during an interview in South Korea.
“I think we need to delete our memories of the imprisoned democratic icon.”
Malaysian aid mission
The violence in Rakhine and resulting humanitarian crisis has unleashed anti-Myanmar protests in Asian capitals and an outpouring of sympathy for the Rohingya people from leaders of Muslim majority countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
During a visit to Bangladesh earlier this week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta was ready to help Bangladesh ease its humanitarian burden from the massive influx of new refugees.
On Friday, the office of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that his government was launching a mission to deliver humanitarian aid to refugee camps clustered along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
“It is an integrated aid mission to supply urgent need and assistance to shelter refugees across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border,” Najib’s office said in a statement.
Discussions would also be held “for the placement of a military hospital in the area with the further consent of Bangladeshi authorities,” according to the statement.
Imran Vittachi in Washington and Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.