Released June 2003
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development
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The Plight of Burma's Stateless, Rohingya Muslims

by Chris Lewa

Today, about 21,500 Rohingya refugees are sheltering in two camps, Kutupalong (about 8,500) and Nayapara (about 13,000), located between Cox's Bazar and Teknaf in southern Bangladesh near the border with Burma. This group remains from the mass exodus of 1991-92, when 250,000 Rohingya refugees had fled from Burma to escape brutal repression against the Muslim population in Northern Arakan State. A mass repatriation programme overseen by UNHCR took place in 1994/95, which was far from voluntary. Since then, and until September 2002, repatriation from the camps had mostly stalled.

The 21,500 refugees in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps under UNHCR protection are only the visible side of the crisis. Since 1996, thousands of Rohingyas, both repatriated refugees as well as new arrivals, have continued to trickle back from Burma into Bangladesh. They have been denied access to the refugee camps, and have joined the more than 100,000 undocumented Rohingya living outside the camps, often surviving in extreme poverty in villages or slums around Cox's Bazar and Teknaf. Local sources estimate that, in 2002, more than 10,000 Rohingya crossed the border illegally to seek sanctuary in Bangladesh. They became invisible refugees, being labeled as economic migrants by the Bangladesh authorities.

Rohingya who have settled outside the camps regularly face arrests, deportation or eviction. In November 2002, the local Teknaf administration launched an eviction campaign against illegal migrants in the District, leaving thousands homeless and under threat of deportation. With nowhere to go, they set up a makeshift settlement in Teknaf where today more than 4,000 Rohingya are still camping out in extremely precarious conditions without assistance, adequate water and sanitation[7].

Root Causes in Burma

The root causes of the continuing influx of Rohingya lie across the border in Burma. As a result of the Burmese regime's policies of exclusion, the Rohingya Muslims are stateless under the 1982 Citizenship Law[8]. They are subjected to severe restrictions of movement, which affect their ability to trade and to seek employment as well as limit their access to health care and education. They need to obtain a travel permit even to visit a neighbouring village and, following the communal riots in Sittwe in February 2001, travel authorisations were no longer issued for Rohingyas to go beyond Maungdaw and Buthidaung. Sittwe is now totally off limits to them.

Arbitrary confiscation of land without compensation continues, either to provide land for new Buddhist settlers or to build and enlarge military camps, including plantations to grow crops for the military for their own food as well as for commercial purposes. In 2002, at least two new "model village" for Buddhist settlers were established in Maungdaw Township and several military camps have been constructed or expanded to consolidate the border between Burma and Bangladesh in the aftermath of the September 11 attack and the global anti-terrorist campaign[9].

As documented by the ILO in early 2003[10], forced labour is far from being eradicated in Northern Arakan State, even though there has been a significant reduction in the practice over the last decade after UNHCR and WFP [World Food Program] took over responsibility for building local road infrastructure. Compulsory labour continues to be exacted by the military and the NaSaKa[11] for camp maintenance, construction of military facilities, as well as for plantation work in fields confiscated from the villagers. Villagers are also forced to build and repair the houses of Buddhist settlers. Sentry duty is routinely demanded from villagers, and porters are regularly recruited in remote areas. Other types of labour are also requisitioned for the commercial benefit of the military and NaSaKa -- work such as shrimp farm maintenance, collecting bamboo and wood for sale, brick baking, etc. The poor cannot pay bribes to avoid forced labour and are thus compelled to perform not o! nly their own stint of work, but also that of those who had paid off the authorities. The related loss of income deprives them of their daily earnings and greatly contributes to food insecurity. During the first quarter of 2003, new allegations of forced labour for rehabilitation of roads and military facilities as well as for brick baking have been reported.

Illegal taxation and extortion are widely and increasingly reported. In particular, Rohingya need to obtain permission to get married, and the large fee demanded is beyond the means of many. The tactic of arresting people for minor offences or just for being out after dark and demanding high bribes in return for their release appears to have become common practice recently. Moreover, the military control over the local economy, both directly through collection of taxes at checkpoints and from the border trade, and indirectly through a monopoly system on local commodities based on business licences granted in exchange for high bribes, forbids any free-enterprise initiative and hampers any economic development.

The Rohingya in Northern Arakan State continue to face constant humiliation and systematic discrimination, and are subject to widespread human rights violations. They are living in a climate of fear and oppression. Despite the presence of UNHCR and international agencies, conditions have hardly improved. As one NGO representative in Rangoon recently stated: "The presence of UNHCR and some international NGOs has only provided limited relief, but not a structural change."

Political will on the part of the military junta is required to end these policies of exclusion and discrimination and to improve the lot of the Rohingya people. But as long as the SPDC considers the Muslims in Arakan State as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh[12], there is little hope of a significant betterment of their status and living conditions. These conditions can hardly be qualified as being "conducive for a return in safety and with dignity" of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. This explains why the majority of Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh do not agree to repatriate voluntarily.

Excerpted from a report by FORUM-ASIA. FORUM-ASIA is a regional network of human rights and development organizations in Asia. It was established in Manila, Philippines in 1991.

"The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied," Amnesty International, May 19, 2004

[An amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 deprived the Rohingyas of citizenship, suddenly making them illegal immigrants in their own home.--Benjamin Morgan, "China's southwest a safe haven for Myanmar's Muslims," Daily Times, October 3, 2007]

[Continued human-rights abuses against the estimated 725,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and the denial of citizenship rights, including the inability to own land and the necessity of obtaining government permission to travel or even marry, has resulted in many fleeing to Bangladesh in recent years.

While human-rights and humanitarian groups put the present number of registered and unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh at around 220,000, Dhaka now claims there are some 400,000. Of those, only 28,000 are officially registered refugees living in three officially designated camps and receiving humanitarian aid.--Brian McCartan, "Bilateral repression for Myanmar's Rohingya," Asia Times, February 23, 2010]

Copyright © 2003 Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development - All or portion of this book may be reproduced by any non-governmental organization or people's organization for use in human rights advocacy, provided acknowledgement of the source is given. Notification of such use would be appreciated.
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