Nearly 50 foreign diplomats on Wednesday visited refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh overflowing because of a massive new influx of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, and some expressed shock as they heard eyewitness accounts of alleged atrocities across the border.
Forty-six ambassadors and diplomats from at least 18 countries toured camps in Cox’s Bazar district and met with Rohingya Muslims.
The refugees were among some 380,000 people who have fled to Bangladesh since late August, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations, whose secretary general on Wednesday described the humanitarian situation along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border as “catastrophic.”
During the tour hosted by Bangladesh’s government, the group of international visitors saw thousands of people living in squalid conditions in makeshift shelters. Off in the distance, smoke could be seen billowing from Rohingya villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which lies across the Naf River that separates the two countries.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali led the foreign dignitaries to the U.N.-run Kutupalong refugee camp to meet with Rohingya, who had abandoned their homes in Rakhine as they escaped from the latest cycle of violence there.
“I had been here two months ago. But of course, it is much more devastating now – too many people – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and we have to treat it like that,” Dutch Ambassador Leoni Cuelenaere told reporters.
“I must compliment the government of Bangladesh for receiving all these people with such a big warm heart.”
Italian Ambassador Mario Palma thanked Bangladesh for giving shelter to tens of thousands of refugees.
“In the future, we have to think about a lasting solution,” he told reporters. “They need to have their own country.”
He called on Myanmar to grant citizenship rights to Rohingya.
The visitors represented India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Nepal, the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and other resident missions in Dhaka.
Chinese Ambassador Ma Mingqiang was among 46 foreign envoys and diplomats who visited southeastern Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district to get a close-up view of the humanitarian crisis fueled by an influx of Rohingya refugees, Sept. 13, 2017. [Jesmin Papri/BenarNews]
‘Could you find a better word to describe it’: UN chief
In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on U.N. member states to create an urgent and effective action plan to tackle the root causes forcing Rohingya to flee Myanmar.
“The humanitarian situation is catastrophic,” Guterres said in a statement posted on the U.N.’s news website. He noted that people were arriving hungry and malnourished and finding shelter in makeshift settlements or with host communities.
“I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country,” he said.
Asked if the situation could be described as ethnic cleansing, he told a press briefing at U.N. headquarters, “Well, I would answer your question with another question: When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it.”
“This is a dramatic tragedy. People are dying and suffering at horrible numbers and we need to stop it. That is my main concern,” Guterres added.
Later on Wednesday, following a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the issue, the body issued a unanimous statement expressing concern about “excessive force” used by security forces in the Rakhine state and called for immediate steps to end the violence, Agence France-Presse reported.
In southeastern Bangladesh earlier in the day, the group of 46 diplomats headed to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, after landing at Cox’s Bazar airport.
District Deputy Commissioner Ali Hossain told the diplomats that refugees in large numbers started crossing into Bangladesh in the aftermath of attacks on security checkpoints in Myanmar by Rohingya insurgents on Aug. 25.
The new influx of refugees has brought the total Rohingya refugee population in southeastern Bangladesh to just over 800,000, including people who fled from earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine.
At least 100 people have died since late August – mostly from drowning – while trying to cross the border into Bangladesh, local officials told BenarNews.
The Myanmar government has blamed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents for fomenting the latest cycle and for burning Rohingya villages, although eyewitnesses have reported that members of the military and local militia were targeting Rohingya civilians.
Joined by journalists, the diplomats listened as refugees recounted tales of horrors allegedly suffered at the hands of Myanmar security forces.
Some diplomats were heard muttering, “inhuman, inhuman ... oh, my God.”
Around 1:30 p.m. as they prepared to leave, the diplomats could see smoke billowing from Rohingya villages on the other side of the Naf River. Some used their mobile phones to shoot video of the devastation.
They also visited Ghundum point along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Naikhangchhari, where landmines had been discovered.
‘Actions against humanity’
On Wednesday, the government was registering new refugee arrivals and collecting biometric data from them, Bangladeshi State Foreign Affairs Minister Shahriar Alam told reporters in Ukhia.
“The Rohingya will be repatriated once the situation stabilizes,” he said.
The ambassadors’ visit to the camps could help lead to other countries mounting diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to resolve the crisis, he said.
“Now they witnessed the actions against humanity. This will help us expedite diplomatic initiatives,” Alam told BenarNews.
“Hopefully, they will message their headquarters that repatriation of Rohingya is the only solution,” Alam said.
Meanwhile, four C-130 cargo planes took off on Wednesday from Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma Airforce Base to deliver 34 tons of rice, ready-to-eat food, water tanks, refugee tents, children’s clothing and blankets to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Indonesian government officials said.
“We are doing this after I commissioned and sent the foreign minister to talk with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar about what humanitarian aid they need,” Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said.
He and other officials inspected the cargo before the mercy flights took off for Chittagong, the largest city in southeastern Bangladesh. Indonesia plans to send additional aid to the refugees.
The Indonesian airlift occurred a day after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) chartered a Boeing 777 to deliver 100 tons of supplies, including shelter material, jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats and other essential items for 25,000 refugees. A second delivery included about 1,700 tents for families. U.N. officials said.
Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata in Jakarta contributed to this report.