Refugees' free choice should be respected
Dhaka/New York, September 17 2003 - The Bangladesh government is subjecting thousands of Rohingya refugees to intimidation and harassment as part of a campaign to pressure them to return to Myanmar (Burma), says the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Many of them are afraid to go back but are now being left with no choice. On the eve of handing over its health care activities in the refugee camps to the Bangladesh ministry of Health, MSF remains deeply concerned about the protection of the Rohingya refugees. MSF calls upon the Bangladesh government and UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for refugee protection, to look after the refugees' basic rights and respect their free choice.
Despite atrocious living conditions in the camps, many of the refugees are not willing to return. The refugees live in overcrowded spaces with insufficient water and food. They are barred from growing food or working outside the camp. Last year 58% of the children in the camps suffered from chronic malnutrition. In recent months, staff from MSF received over 550 complaints of coercion from the refugees. The complaints ranged from incidents of intimidation to outright threats of physical abuse to push people to repatriate.
There are reports that some repatriated refugees have already come back to Bangladesh and are now taking shelter outside the camps. Meanwhile, new refugees continue to arrive, fleeing the ongoing intimidation by the Myanmar authorities. Both repatriated refugees and new arrivals complain about food problems, arbitrary taxation, rising extortion, restriction of movement, and lack of citizenship.
Discrimination, violence, and forced labor practices by the Myanmar authorities triggered an exodus of more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims between 1991 and 1992. Since 1992, approximately 230,000 refugees have returned. How voluntary this repatriation program - supervised by UNHCR - has been has often been questioned. Today more than 19,000 Rohingyas remain in two camps south of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
Recently, the Bangladesh Ministry of Health took over the health care in both camps in co-ordination with UNHCR. MSF leaves the camp after having provided basic health care and nutritional programs for 11 years. MSF urges the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR to uphold their responsibility to provide protection and adequate health care to the refugees. Recent efforts by UNHCR to increase the protection of the refugees in the camps come too late for many. The refugees who are still in Bangladesh should be entitled to decide for themselves if it is safe to return home.