The situation of Burmese refugees in
By Chris Lewa,
Forum Asia, Bangkok
Delivered at the Regional Conference
on the Protection for Refugees from Burma
organised by Forum-Asia
Mai, 6 & 7 November
one of the largest numbers of refugees in Asia when
250,000 Rohingya fled en masse from Burma in 1978
and again in 1991/92. However, like
most countries in the region, Bangladesh has not
acceded to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor has it enacted any national
refugee legislation. Refugees are dealt with on an ad-hoc basis. Bangladesh has
allowed the UNHCR to assist and protect some Burmese refugees.
Burmese refugees currently in Bangladesh can be divided into three
1) About 20,000 Rohingya
refugees sheltering in two camps:
They remain from the mass exodus of 1991/92 and are recognised as “prima facie” refugees by the UNHCR (group
2) Between 100,000 and 200,000 Rohingya
refugees outside camps in South Bangladesh:
They are not recognised as
refugees and are often labelled as economic migrants.
3) A caseload of about 70 mostly Rakhine urban refugees in Dhaka:
They have been granted “Person of
Concern” status by the UNHCR (individual basis).
This paper will first examine the root
causes of the Burmese refugee exodus to Bangladesh and then address the specific
situation and protection issues of each category of refugees.
An essential difference appears when comparing the
overall root causes of population displacement along the eastern and western
borders of Burma. In Arakan State,
bordering Bangladesh, there
is little armed resistance and the refugee outflow does not result from
ruthless counter-insurgency strategies, as is the case along the Thai-Burma
border. While the worst forms of human
rights violations such as massive forced relocation, torture, or summary executions,
are thus less frequent, the root causes of the refugee outflow to Bangladesh are the
policies of exclusion and discrimination carried out against the Rohingya community by the Burmese military regime.
Arakan State is
inhabited by two major ethnic communities.
About two-thirds of the population is Rakhine
Buddhist, close to the Burman in terms of religion and language, while one
third is Muslim. This group, known as Rohingya, is ethnically and religiously related to the Chittagonian people of southern Bangladesh
and is mostly concentrated in the northern part of Arakan State adjacent to Bangladesh. Nearly 30% of the Rohingya population of Northern
fled during the last refugee exodus of 1991/92.
The military regime’s monolithic concept of nation
building promotes assimilation rather than integration of all ethnic groups
within a primarily Burman Buddhist nation.
But the Rohingya do not feature among the 135
“national races” identified by the Burmese government. In Arakan, the
junta has implemented policies of exclusion against the Muslim population while
attempting to forcibly assimilate the Rakhine
Buddhists. By denying all rights to the
Rohingyas, depriving them of citizenship on the basis
of their ethnicity and referring to them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the
military present themselves as protectors of the Buddhist community, which
further exacerbates existing communal tensions. The Citizenship Law of 1982,
promulgated shortly after the repatriation of 1978, renders them de facto
freedom of movement is highly restricted, as they need permission to travel
even to a neighbouring village. Since
February 2001, Sittwe has remained off-limits for the
Rohingyas of Northern Arakan.
Their lack of mobility has devastating consequences, limiting their
access to markets, employment opportunities, health facilities and higher
A series of
measures has been imposed to limit the expansion
of the Rohingya
population. Unlike other people of
Burma, they must apply for permission to get married, which is only granted in
exchange for high bribes and can take up to several years to obtain.
Their land has been confiscated to
accommodate Buddhist settlers. To date,
the government has established 26 “model villages” of about 100 houses in Northern Arakan State.
Rohingyas are routinely subject to forced
labour, arbitrary taxation, and constant humiliations. While UNHCR and its partners have managed to
reduce the amount of compulsory labour by taking over responsibility for
building local road infrastructure, this practice is far from being
eradicated. Forced labourers continue to
be recruited for army camp construction and maintenance, sentry duty, portering, and especially for such tasks as shrimp farm
maintenance, plantation work, brick baking, bamboo collection and woodcutting
for commercial ventures belonging to the military.
Business concessions can only be obtained by means of
licences, which require high bribes.
All economic sectors are controlled through a monopoly system
based on licences, which totally forbids any free-enterprise initiative.
The combination of these policies -- from
the denial of legal status to restriction of movement and economic constraints
-- prevents the Rohingya from developing socially and
economically, creates food insecurity and makes life in Arakan
unbearable. These policies are
deliberately designed to encourage departure to Bangladesh. As
long as there is no willingness on the part of the Burmese government to
integrate this population, the cycle of exodus will not be stemmed.
Buddhists are also a neglected ethnic group in Burma.
They are subject to forced labour and tightly controlled, and informal
taxation is widespread. Whereas very few
Rakhine refugees go to Bangladesh, many leave Arakan State to search for economic opportunities in the urban centres of Central Burma and, whenever possible, on to Thailand and Malaysia.
refugees in camps: “prima facie”
Bangladesh bore the brunt of two mass exoduses
of approximately 250,000 Rohingya refugees each, in 1978 and again in
1991/2. In both cases, repatriation
followed in conditions far from conducive to safe return. In 1994, UNHCR gained access to the Burma side of the border to supervise the
last mass repatriation, the “voluntariness” of which
was seriously questioned by international relief agencies. After 1995, repatriation mostly stalled, as the
SPDC was no longer disposed to accept more refugees back. At present, about 20,000 Rohingya
refugees remain in two camps in Bangladesh.
in the refugee camps are particularly appalling. They are managed by Bangladeshi officials and
not, as along the Thai-Burma border, by the refugees
housed in sheds – long houses containing 6 rooms – made of bamboo and plastic
sheeting, with a mud floor and a low roof.
They are dark, cramped and poorly maintained. Primary education has only been permitted in
recent years and capacity-building for refugees is minimal. Corruption and violence are rampant. According to Médecins
sans Frontières (MSF), 58% of
refugee children suffer from chronic malnutrition, exposing them to disease and
hampering their physical and mental development.
A recent survey conducted in the two camps by UNHCR
and the Bangladesh Government revealed that 14,126 refugees (more than two
thirds) do not want to repatriate or would do so only when conditions improve,
to guarantee a return in safety and dignity.
Current Repatriation Process
The Bangladesh government
has always been adamant that all Rohingya refugees
must return to Burma. Following improved relations and enhanced
economic ties with its eastern neighbour, Bangladesh has
recently persuaded the SPDC to lift all restrictions for the remaining 20,000
refugees to return to Burma. Starting in October 2002, the repatriation
exercise was reactivated. Concurrently,
UNHCR announced its plan to promote self-sufficiency pending return, including
the phasing-out of its “care and maintenance” responsibilities in the
camps. In May 2003, the number of
refugees being repatriated rose dramatically, and so did the number of
complaints denouncing coercion, intimidation and forced repatriation. Physical
abuse and mental pressure was used to induce repatriation. The methods
included threats of jail, arbitrary arrest, beatings, deprivation of food,
destruction of housing and transfer to other sections of the camp. Refugees selected for repatriation were
detained overnight in the camp offices and then dragged onto trucks. UNHCR was clearly not providing any effective
protection against involuntary repatriation
Advocacy by Forum-Asia, Refugees International and
others prompted UNHCR to take the matter seriously and, in July 2003,
high-level officials from the Geneva
headquarters were dispatched to Bangladesh to
investigate these allegations. Their
mission resulted in the appointment of additional international protection
staff. Strengthened UNHCR intervention
has led to significant improvements.
Camp officials are now avoiding the use of physical violence against
refugees to induce repatriation, and incidents of forced repatriation have
decreased considerably. However,
refugees continue to be harassed, as psychological pressure and fear are still
used to encourage repatriation. The task
of convincing refugees to return is now being enforced by majees
[block leaders] and volunteers, who are refugees themselves, acting as agents
of the Camp-in-Charge. Threats of jail
and arrest on fabricated criminal cases have also been effective in persuading
many reluctant refugees to return to Burma without
opposing repatriation. As a result of
the poorly managed streamlining process, the only two international
humanitarian NGOs in the camps, MSF and Concern,
have had to leave.
Refugees have now stated that: “The situation in Bangladesh is now
worse than in Burma. Perhaps it is better to go back rather than
staying here!” Voluntary repatriation is
thus being achieved by making conditions in the camps comparatively worse than
Refugees with personal reasons to fear persecution in Burma such as
former militants continue to resist repatriation and some of them are either in
jail or have been released on bail, while others have fled the camps. It is not clear what will eventually happen
to this hardcore protection caseload.
The UNHCR self-reliance programme pending voluntary
repatriation raises many concerns. It is
unlikely that Bangladesh would
endorse the proposal, which they regard as a disincentive to return, but UNHCR has already moved
toward implementation by streamlining health services. Engaging refugees to assume responsibility
for their own lives is obviously desirable, but how can 20,000 refugees become self-sufficient
within 18 months in hostile surroundings already saturated by undocumented Rohingya surviving in deplorable conditions? UNHCR does not foresee the refugees being
scattered, but rather being contained in a “settlement” after the hand-over to
authorities, which raises further questions as to how self-reliance could ever
be attained under such restrictions of movement.
By stepping up
repatriation efforts and reducing assistance to refugees, UNHCR has helped
create an environment in which protection is weakened.
Repatriation has been considered as the preferred
solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, promoting repatriation
when the conditions at home have not improved and when a safe return cannot be
guaranteed is highly questionable. Many
may soon come back to Bangladesh. We have evidence that both repatriated
refugees as well as new arrivals continue to enter Bangladesh
illegally. Repatriation has not proved a durable solution, and only
turns visible refugees into invisible ones.
refugees outside camps: labelled as “economic migrants”
Between 100,000 and 200,000 Rohingyas are living illegally in slums or villages in the
Southern region of Bangladesh.
Some of them settled in Bangladesh decades ago; others fled more
recently. This figure includes the new
arrivals since 1995 and, in most cases, they
fled for exactly the same reasons as those recognised as refugees in the
camps. But they are denied the
right of asylum in Bangladesh and have been labelled as
Access to the refugee camps has been denied
to new arrivals since 1995 at the time of the mass repatriation. However, the exodus never stopped, and the
post-1995 outflow from Burma is a steady trickle of
repatriated refugees (“double-backers”) fleeing again to Bangladesh, as well as newcomers. For many, starvation triggered their
decision to leave after all other coping mechanisms had been exhausted. It may therefore appear that their flight is
prompted by economic reasons. But food
insecurity is the direct consequence of the discriminatory policies and
constraints they face in Burma, such as forced labour,
extortion, restrictions of movement, etc.
The root cause of flight is therefore persecution, not just economic factors.
This outflow, encouraged but also strictly
controlled by the Burmese military regime, is rendered invisible by the Bangladesh authorities. The
new arrivals are surviving as irregular migrants and are deprived of any
form of protection or humanitarian assistance.
The Bangladesh Government does
not allow any relief for fear of creating a pull-factor, although it has
somehow tolerated and absorbed the influx as long as it does not draw
In order to eke
out an existence, these
unprotected Rohingya provide cheap labour, working in the
local fishing industry, as porters, rickshaw drivers, collecting firewood,
etc. Women are seen begging or are
employed as domestic servants, often in conditions tantamount to slavery.
Public perception of the Rohingya
refugees is extremely negative in Bangladesh and local tensions run
high. The Bangladeshi media contribute to vilifying them and often portray
them as criminals or security threats, accusing them of depleting local resources, degrading the
environment and being responsible for socio-economic destabilization in one of
the poorest regions of Bangladesh.
official crackdowns circulate regularly, and many Rohingyas
are held indefinitely in jails in Bangladesh. In November 2002, an eviction campaign was
launched in Teknaf, whereby more than 4,000 Rohingya were expelled from their rented accommodation and
were forced to camp out near the Teknaf District
Office. These evicted Rohingya set up an unofficial makeshift camp where they are
still surviving today in extremely precarious conditions. They were originally threatened with deportation, but the
Burmese authorities would not even accept them back. The Bangladesh authorities have denied them any
humanitarian assistance. Only recently,
very limited relief has finally been permitted.
Many Rohingya also
rely on human smugglers in their search
for better living conditions in Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Dubai.
Some new arrivals also have
personal reasons for being persecuted in Burma. For instance, we interviewed a man who had
escaped arrest after talking to the ILO.
But the UNHCR has been unable even
to examine their claims, much less to provide them with any effective
Referring to new
arrivals as “economic migrants” is therefore a construct that only serves to
conceal the root causes of their flight and to deprive them of their rights to
asylum, protection and assistance.
Around 70 Rakhine
and other Burmese have been recognised by UNHCR as urban refugees in Dhaka. Most of them are political activists
involved in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising or with the ethnic opposition
movement. Five spent several years in
jail in Bangladesh for illegal entry before being granted “Person of Concern” status by
UNHCR and released.
UNHCR works with a local NGO
implementing partner, the Refugee Counselling Services Unit (RCSU) established
as a UNHCR project. The RCSU deals with
asylum applications, preliminary interviews and refugee assistance. But many refugees perceive them as an
obstacle, which prevents them from approaching UNHCR directly. Refugees also
complain about considerable delays in their status determination.
In 1998, UNHCR started curtailing
monthly financial assistance to most refugees in Dhaka as part of its urban refugee policy to promote
self-sufficiency. Refugees were offered
a lump sum grant to start a small business and their subsistence allowance was
discontinued. While Bangladesh
allows them to remain, they were not issued with work permits. Rakhine refugees
face language difficulties in Dhaka and they claimed they had not
been offered any vocational training to improve their skills. Some, who attempted to engage in economic
activities, had been challenged by the local community. UNHCR itself questioned the success of the
self-reliance programme, as requests for additional support were subsequently made. In February and March 2003, Burmese refugees
in Dhaka organized hunger strikes
to protest against the “lump sum” policy.
Ten of them were resettled to the Netherlands in
2001, which has been the sole resettlement opportunity offered to them.
If protection is less of an issue for Burmese urban refugees in
the termination of the monthly subsistence allowance has adversely
affected them. As a result of inadequate
assistance, most urban refugees live in substandard conditions in Dhaka.
Migrants in detention
In addition, I must mention the
hopeless situation of more than 500 Burmese “released prisoners” detained in
Bangladeshi jails. Many are fishermen
from various parts of Burma, but especially from Mon State and Tenasserim Division, who first came to Thailand seeking
jobs on Thai fishing trawlers and were later caught fishing illegally in
Bangladeshi territorial waters. The rest
are Rohingyas arrested as illegals
in Bangladesh. All of them have long ago
served their sentence for illegal entry but could not be released because the
Burmese authorities are generally not interested in taking them back. As a result, they are languishing in jails,
some for more than 10 years.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Protection issues faced by Burmese refugees
in Bangladesh can be summarized as follows:
1) The Rohingyas
in refugee camps are in need of enhanced protection against involuntary
repatriation as well as against abuses in the camps. The voluntary nature of repatriation should
2) The Rohingyas
outside the camps are totally denied protection as well as humanitarian
assistance. Their predicament must be
addressed urgently and a mechanism put in place to allow them to approach UNHCR
3) The urban refugees in Dhaka should be entitled to subsistence assistance. Allowances should not be terminated as long
as refugees are not fully
The solution for
the Burmese refugees lies in the Burmese Government’s respecting international
human rights standards. In particular,
for the Rohingya, their statelessness needs to be eradicated and
their fundamental rights restored. Political
will is required to end policies of exclusion and discrimination. In the
meantime, providing protection and assistance to the Rohingya
population is both a moral and a legal obligation of the international