UN, Bangladesh Brace for New Surge of Rohingya Refugees

Prapti Rahman and Tushar Tuhin
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
171010-BD-Rohingya-1000 Rohingya refugees enter southeastern Bangladesh via a path between rice paddies in Teknaf, Cox’s Bazar district, Oct. 10, 2017.
Abdur Rahman/BenarNews

At least 11,000 more refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state arrived in Bangladesh in a single day on Monday, prompting the U.N. to declare “it was back in a situation of full alert” as it anticipated  a new surge in arrivals.

More than half a million Rohingya refugees have crossed the border since late August and, on Tuesday, more were entering southeastern Bangladesh “like flashfloods,” local officials told BenarNews, adding that tens of thousands more had amassed along the frontier.

“Those who have come here told us that many others are still waiting to come to Bangladesh,” said Md Ali Hossain, the deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar district.

Zafar Alam, a Rohingya leader at the Kutupalong camp, the largest of the refugee camps and settlements in southeastern Bangladesh, said 11,000 people from nine villages in Buthidaung and Rathedaung – two townships that are further inland inside Rakhine – were among the latest arrivals in Bangladesh.

“They crossed the Naf River along with their kids. They have taken shelter in different places in Teknaf [sub-district]. Nearly 50,000 are still waiting to cross the border,” he told BenarNews.

In Geneva, the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was preparing to rush relief supplies to Bangladesh in order to deal with “a fresh refugee surge.”

“UNHCR is working with the Bangladesh authorities on a transit center to prepare for a potential refugee influx in the coming days. This is in view of yesterday’s sudden increase in in people arriving from Myanmar,” agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told a press briefing Tuesday, according to a news release from UNHCR.

“We’re back in a situation of full alert as far as influxes are concerned. It is a big increase to see 11,000,” Edwards said, according to Reuters.

The number that he cited was based on information provided by Bangladeshi border guards.

The influx since late August, which the United Nations secretary-general has called the “world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency,” has strained humanitarian resources in southeastern Bangladesh. More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees, including those who fled earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine, are now concentrated on the Bangladeshi side of the border.

“[M]any of the new refugees came from the Buthidaung area in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state …. Some of them said they fled torching and killings back home,” Edwards told reporters, referring to the more than 11,000 who arrived on Monday.

Cases of HIV-AIDS reported

U.N. officials have warned that refugees, who include many women and children, are vulnerable to outbreaks of water-borne disease such as cholera, and at least one local physician reported that there were some cases of HIV-AIDS among the new arrivals.

“At least 16 Rohingya people have been identified as AIDS patients,” Dr. Md Abdus Salam, a doctor in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.

Other people were suffering from tuberculosis, hepatitis-B and -C, as well as skin ailments, he said.

“Most of the Rohingyas are suffering from different diseases due mainly to malnutrition,” Salam said.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Tuesday that it and Bangladesh’s Health Ministry had kicked off a massive campaign to immunize some 900,000 refugees from cholera, in two stages. More than 200 mobile teams will vaccinate some 650,000 people aged one and older during the first stage. The second stage, starting Oct. 31, will target 250,000 children aged one to five, WHO said in a news release.

The campaign will be the second biggest one against cholera behind an oral vaccination campaign in Haiti last year, WHO officials said.

“Emergency vaccination saves lives. The risk of cholera is clear and present, and the need for decisive action apparent,” said Dr. N. Paranietharan, WHO’s representative to Bangladesh.

Without a state

As of Monday, 521,000 refugees had crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since late August, according to a situation report published Tuesday by the Inter Sector Coordination Group. The ISCG orchestrates the humanitarian response among international agencies and aid groups to the refugee situation in Bangladesh.

The refugees were fleeing from violence that broke out in Rakhine after an insurgent group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police outposts there on Aug. 25.

This led to a crackdown by the Myanmar military and Buddhist militias, who have been accused of targeting Rohingya civilians in atrocities, such as killings and burnings of Rohingya villages. The Muslim minority group is stateless because Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in the Buddhist-majority country.

Myanmar authorities have rejected international criticism that the military targeted Rohingya in ethnic cleansing, and blamed the violence on ARSA insurgents. Half of Rakhine’s Muslim population, which stood at around 1 million, has fled to Bangladesh since late August.

Pope is coming

In related news on Tuesday, the Vatican released the schedule for the upcoming trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh by Pope Francis, who has addressed the plight of the Rohingya people in recent sermons.

The pontiff will travel to Myanmar from Nov. 27 to 30 and then go to Bangladesh for the next three days, according to a schedule published by Vatican Radio.

Francis is scheduled to meet with government leaders in both countries, but visits to Rakhine state and refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh are not on the program.

Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar contributed to this report.


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