The situation of Burmese refugees in Bangladesh


By Chris Lewa, Forum Asia, Bangkok


Delivered at the Regional Conference on the Protection for Refugees from Burma

organised by Forum-Asia


Chiang Mai, 6 & 7 November 2003



Bangladesh hosted 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 categories:


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 recognition).


2)      Between 100,000 and 200,000[1] 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.


Root causes


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[2].  Nearly 30% of the Rohingya population of Northern Arakan 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[3], 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 stateless. 


The Rohingyas’ 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 education.


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. 


The Rakhine 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.


1.     Rohingya refugees in camps: “prima facie” refugees


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.[4]  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.


The conditions in the refugee camps are particularly appalling.  They are managed by Bangladeshi officials and not, as along the Thai-Burma border, by the refugees themselves. 

Refugees are 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.[5]


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[C1] [6].


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[7], 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 in Burma.  


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 the Bangladesh 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[8].


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.


2.     Rohingya 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 “economic migrants”. 


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 international attention.  


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.


Rumours of 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 protection.


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.  


3.     Urban refugees


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.[9]   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 Dhaka, 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.  


Burmese 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 be respected.


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 for protection.


3) The urban refugees in Dhaka should be entitled to subsistence assistance.  Allowances should not be terminated as long as refugees are not fully self-reliant.


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 community.

[1] Estimates vary greatly.  100,000 have been cited in Bangladesh for several years.  In its May 2000 report “Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution”, Human Rights Watch cited a figure of 150,000 from a press report in The Daily Janakontha of 17 July 1999.  Another article in The Daily Purbakone of 7 June 2000 mentioned 250,000.

[2] According to UNHCR, the 3 townships of Northern Rakhine State have a total population of 850,000.  The Rohingya represent 94% of the population of Maungdaw and 88% of Buthidaung, less in Rathedaung.  

[3] In response to UNHCR, Secretary-1 wrote in 1998, "this issue is essentially one of migration, of people seeking greener pastures … these people are not originally from Myanmar ... they are racially, ethnically, culturally different from the other national races in our country. Their language as well as religion is also different”.

[4] Médecins sans Frontières, MSF-France, “The Rohingyas: Forcibly Repatriated to Burma”, 22 Sep 1994, and MSF Holland, “Awareness Survey: Rohingya Refugee Camps, Cox’s Bazaar District, Bangladesh”, 15 March 1995

[5] Médecins sans Frontières, MSF-Holland, “10 Years for the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Future”, March 2002.

[6] UNHCR Bangladesh, Self-reliance Programme Formulation Document (draft), 2003.

[7] Concern only handed over their medical and nutritional programmes.  They are still providing education, sanitation and social counselling in the camps.

[8] Refugees International, “Lack of Protection Plagues Burma's Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh”, 30 May 2003

[9] UNHCR, Mid-Year Report 2000, page 158.