Southeast Bangladesh Struggles with Fast-Growing Rohingya Refugee Influx

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Abdur Rahman
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
170903-BD-woman-620 Rohingya refugees carry a woman from Rakhine state in Myanmar along a path near Teknaf, Bangladesh, Sept. 3, 2017.

The number of Rohingya Muslims who have escaped to southeastern Bangladesh from a new wave of violence in Myanmar has surpassed 70,000, stretching humanitarian resources at already crowded refugee camps, the U.N. said Sunday, as local officials struggled to control the rapidly growing influx.

As of Sunday, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), at least 73,000 refugees had crossed into Bangladesh since Aug. 25 from Rakhine state, where mass atrocities against civilians have been reported as the Myanmar security forces fight an insurgency group that calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

“The current focus is on providing life-saving support within our increasingly strained resources,” Vivian Tan, a regional spokesman for UNHCR told BenarNews, adding that the current figure of 73,000 new arrivals since the last week of August was based on combined estimates from various agencies.

“There is an urgent need to register the new arrivals in order to target the assistance,” Tan said in an email from Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi district that houses refugee camps where at least 400,000 Rohingya, who had fled earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine, are concentrated.

Sunday’s figure was almost double the total number of new arrivals estimated by the U.N. as of Friday. Two days ago, the estimates of new arrivals since Aug. 25 stood at 38,000.

“UNHCR and our U.N. and NGO partners are working with the local authorities to respond as best as we can. In the existing refugee camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, we are working to provide emergency shelter in schools and community centers, and have also set up temporary structures to provide temporary accommodation,” Tan said.

NGOs such as Action Against Hunger were providing hot meals to new arrivals, and members of longer-standing refugee circles had mobilized community kitchens to feed them, she said.

“We are working to identify vulnerable arrivals to refer them to the services available, such as medical treatment and psychosocial counseling,” Tan added.

‘Desperate to enter Bangladesh’

Since the fighting broke out in Rakhine on Aug. 24, nearly 400 people – mostly ARSA insurgents – have been killed on the Myanmar side of the border, according to the government there.

On the Bangladeshi side, since the crisis began the bodies of at least 54 people have been pulled from the Naf River, after they drowned while trying to cross over to Bangladesh by boat, local authorities said Sunday.

“They have been coming in large numbers. We on the administration side have really been struggling to handle them,” Ali Hossain, the deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews on Sunday night, referring to the thousands of Rohingya who had come over along with hundreds of Hindu families also displaced by violence in Rakhine.

The local government has been giving them some support and humanitarian aid, he said.

“A huge number of people have been waiting at different points to enter. We have been trying to convince them to get back to Myanmar. But it is not working,” Lt. Col. S.M. Ariful Islam, the commander of the Bangladesh border police in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.

“They are not listening to us because they are desperate to enter Bangladesh.”

Local people were helping out the new arrivals by giving them food, water, medicine and other supplies, Islam said. Injured refugees, he added, were being treated at different hospitals in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees shelter at a school in Teknaf, Bangladesh, Sept. 3, 2017. [Abdur Rahman/BenarNews]

‘There is genocide there’

The violence in neighboring Rakhine ignited on Aug. 24 when ARSA carried out multiple attacks on Myanmar police outposts, in which more than 100 people, including dozens of insurgents were killed, according to the Myanmar authorities.

The insurgents say they are fighting to uphold the rights of the stateless Rohingya people, whom Myanmar does not recognize as citizens and whose Buddhist majority refers to pejoratively as “Bengalis.”

Allegations of atrocities committed by the military or government-backed forces against Rohingya civilians as well as massive acts of arson targeting Rohingya villages in Rakhine have provoked international outrage and concern. ARSA, for its part, has been accused of committing atrocities against local Buddhists.

“The dire situation facing our Rohingya brothers and sisters must be alleviated for good of Myanmar & region,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Sunday on Twitter.

Elsewhere, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was blunt as he accused the Myanmar government of trying to wipe out the Rohingya people.

“There is genocide there,” the leader of Muslim majority Turkey said Friday, according to Agence France-Presse. “Those who close their eyes to this genocide perpetuated under the cover of democracy are its collaborators.”

On Saturday, the Myanmar government reported that more than 2,600 homes had been burned down in Rakhine, but it blamed the Rohingya insurgents for the arson acts.

That day, New York-based Human Rights Watch released satellite images showing several hundred buildings burning in Chein Khar Li, a Rohingya Muslim village in Rathedaung Township.

“This new satellite imagery shows the total destruction of a Muslim village, and prompts serious concerns that the level of devastation in northern Rakhine State may be far worse than originally thought,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“Yet this is only one of 17 sites that we’ve located where burnings have taken place. Independent monitors are needed on the ground to urgently uncover what’s going on,” he added.

Meanwhile, Myanmar State Counselor Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her past efforts in leading her nation’s pro-democracy movement while Myanmar’s ruling generals kept her under house arrest, has been widely criticized for not speaking out against or acting to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

She has been the target of pro-Rohingya street protests in Malaysia and in Indonesia, where a small group of activists demonstrated outside the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on Saturday. According to reports, a small fire broke out Sunday morning when someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the embassy.

Also on Sunday, the Indonesian government announced that Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi was traveling to Myanmar and Bangladesh to hold talks with officials in both countries about the crisis in Rakhine.

Retno is expected to arrive in Dhaka on Tuesday, said Manjarul Karim Khan Chowdhury, director general in charge of the Southeast Asia desk at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.

“We will discuss many bilateral issues with her, and infiltration of Myanmar nationals into Bangladesh will be one of the issues of discussion,” Chowdhury told BenarNews.

Imran Vittachi in Washington and Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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