A GLOBAL VOICE FOR THE WORLD'S DISPOSSESSED
Recommendations on the Rohingyas in Bangladesh:
Mission to Bangladesh - April 21 to 29, 1994
Repatriation, although agreed upon to be voluntary, has in fact not been voluntary.
Those who "agreed" to return to Arakan have faced and continue to face severe coercion, including reportedly,
physical abuse, deprivation of food rations, confiscation of their money or possessions, arrest and threats.
governments should express concern that UNHCR Geneva is currently not providing
adequate monitoring of the process to return refugees to Arakan and must take action to ensure the
voluntary nature of the repatriation is upheld.
should increase protection of the refugees currently in the camps; UNHCR must
additional staff - at least one per camp - tasked not only with preparations for repatriation, but also
focussed on protecting the refugees from a non-voluntary return.
Memorandum of Understanding focusses primarily on the
short term needs of the refugees
and fails to address many of the root causes of their distrust and fear. Because of these
circumstances, UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh should re-evaluate the time frame for
repatriation. Refugees should not be returned until their safety can be insured. UNHCR and donor
countries should solicit the continued patience of the Bangladesh government.
should arrange for adequate monitoring in Arakan. Their team should be given
all areas where refugees are returning and be allowed to conduct their monitoring without official
escort or official interpreters.
We urge UNHCR to work with Burmese government authorities
to reinstate former land use
privileges to those returning. If not applicable, the government should allocate new land in
proximity to their former residence. This would help to reassure refugees of the government's good
and the governments involved should be identifying and addressing the special
vulnerable and at risk groups both in Bangladesh and Arakan.
should be made for continued monitoring of both the Bangladesh camps and Arakan
an appropriate additional NGO within the next 2 to 3 months.
light of refugee anxieties over the Burmese government's compulsory three month
courses for girls aged 15 to 18 which separates girls from their families, UNHCR should work with
the Burmese authorities to eliminate these courses.
• UNHCR and the international community should
encourage SLORC to participate in tripartite
meetings to facilitate coordination on repatriation policy.
June 6, 1994
21 DUPONT CIRCLE, NW • WASHINGTON DC 20036 • TELEPHONE (202) 828-0110 • FAX (202) 828-0819
ROHINGYA REFUGEES IN BANGLADESH
Yvette Pierpaoli - Refugees International Representative
June 6, 1994
In order to assess the situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Refugees International representative Yvette Pierpaoli (YP) visited this country from April 21 to 29. During her visit, she talked to UNHCR and NGO representatives, foreign diplomats and officials from Bangladesh, and interviewed a large number of refugees.
Visit to the camps:
Accompanied by a UNHCR translator, YP visited the camp of Moiskum, Dhoa Palong, Dechua Palong 1 and 2, Gundhum 1, 2 and 3, as well as the transit camp of Nayapara. Interviews were conducted either individually or hi groups of between 5 to 30 persons without the presence of Bangladeshi officials. In total, some 500 people gave their opinion.
Refugee Views of Conditions in Arakan:
Every day some refugees cross the border into Myanmar to assess the situation; upon their return, they distribute information at two market points on the border.
The reports include what UNHCR is doing in Myanmar: the numbers of cars they possess, their restricted movements (reportedly UNHCR is always escorted by officials), the offices and housing construction projects, the number of cars they intend to import and the content of discussions between SLORC officials and UNHCR. This information, verified by UNHCR, appears correct, which reinforces the credibility of refugee reports.
The message from those who have crossed into Myanmar is quite clear: "Do not return. The situation has not changed." Here is what has reportedly happened:
Living in huts covered by UNHCR plastic sheets,
returnees depend on the charity of their
neighbors; they have not been contacted by UNHCR.
No-one has had property returned except in cases of direct
negotiation with the new
occupant. (Which is not possible if the occupant is part of the military.)
There is a compulsory training course for young women
ages 15 to 18, some of them
married, who have to leave their home for a period of up to three months.
Forced labor continues (digging soil for shrimp projects
or working as a porter in the
The following interviews help illustrate the situation of the refugees:
In one example, Mr. Y, 23 years old, went voluntarily to Myanmar last month to survey the situation. (He paid Bangladesh authorities to leave and return to the camp). His family was owner of a shrimp project and had one acre of land.
Mr. Y spent 9 days in Burma on his trip, and confirmed UNHCR's presence through contact with them and photos of two of them. He learned that returnees aren't allowed by the SLORC to contact UNHCR. He also discovered that SLORC officials are building a tower near Mongdow in the mountains and that the Rohingyas are being engaged in forced labor for this purpose.
He visited some returnees who told him they received a yellow card at the reception center which allows them to travel safely to their village. Once they had arrived in the village, however, they had no documents to allow them to leave.
From what he saw, forced labor still goes on; people must bring their own food for 7 to 10 days. Some people who live far from the border or are too weak to walk sell their plastic sheeting and food rations at the reception center to pay for transportation back to their village. None have had their land returned to them. They build bamboo huts which they cover with the plastic sheeting provided, if these haven't already been sold. In order to live, they need land to work; but they have no hope of regaining access to it before the planting season is over, in spite of the promises made by local authorities. He cited that the Mongdow mosque is still closed.
Asked why the 50,000 who have gone back to Myanmar have not gone back to Bangladesh, Mr. Y replied that some have and are settled in Bangladesh outside the camps. As there is no ID system hi Bangladesh, there is no risk of arrest. Recently, Nasaga (military police) sealed off the border and many of those who wanted to cross have been arrested. Also, returnees face the challenge of restricted travel and are aware of the struggle in the camps.
There is discrimination against the returnees by the SLORC. A returnee cannot obtain permission to go to Akyab or any other city, but those Rohingyas who have never left the country can ask for a travel permit. In some cases, a sum of 150 takas must be paid to the reception center to obtain a yellow card. While in Myanmar, Mr. Y heard nothing about torture, arrest or execution. Nevertheless, the returnees are afraid. UNHCR staff have been to the area, but they have not visited the returnees.
Said Mr. Y, "We wanted to go back on condition that we would have religious freedom, no more forced labor and Myanmar citizenship, but we are forced to return and none of these conditions are being fulfilled. Can Refugees International help us? I have no choice but to go back, otherwise I shall be imprisoned. Maybe I should change my religion and become a Christian!"
In another interview, Mr. G, who is 40 years old and with a family, said that he doesn't want to return because of forced labor. When in Mongdow, he was called up to do forced labor and during that time, some soldiers raped his young sister who subsequently committed suicide. One of his major problems was poverty. He could hardly feed his family because of the constant obligation to supply chickens, rice and potatoes to the army. He has heard that those forced back must do a compulsory 10 days of forced labor a month.
Notably, almost every refugee interviewed talked about their land which they say has been confiscated. Some of the refugees had in their possession documents pertaining to land title. This conflicts with information given by UNHCR, according to which most people do not own any land. Clearly, the issue of access to land for the returnees is critical to the refugees.
Said a woman refugee, "I fear death because of the contract signed between the SLORC and the UN. If the SLORC is obliged to return our land, they will do so, but as soon as UNHCR leaves Arakan, we may be killed." Her land was reportedly first confiscated in 1978, returned to her upon her earlier repatriation, but was later taken away again.
Land seems to be a critical source of mistrust by the refugees towards returning to Burma under current conditions there. Said one refugee: "UNHCR is telling us the promises made by the SLORC about land, identity papers and so on, but since we do not trust the SLORC, why should we trust UNHCR? UNHCR should make direct promises to us and provide us with direct information regarding the situation in Myanmar." According to another, "If some refugees start to get their land back as promised we will go back. But we need to see it hi order to believe it."
The refugees are being subjected to an extraordinary level of coercion by the local authorities to force people to go back to Arakan. By the hundreds, they are being deprived of food, beaten, humiliated, physically forced into trucks and sent to transit camps. Some families who dared to say "no" at the UNHCR interview in the transit camp were sent back to their original camp where, under the eyes of UNHCR staff, they were deprived of food and water and forced to stand on one leg and beaten until they fell repeatedly. Afterwards, they were returned to the transit camp. Some women showed fresh whip scars on their thighs; others implied that their young daughters face abuse from the army during the night.
In front of RIs representative, an official beat 2 women with a stick; other officials were seen forcing refugees into a truck destined for the transit camp. The refugees were all lamenting, begging for help. An 80 year old man fell into YP's arms, crying, "They took all my possessions, including my books."
Comments like "They jailed my son", "they came at night", "they beat us all the time", "they deprive us of food", "they send us by force to the transit camp", or "be careful of the 'collaborator' who could be here" were heard from every person interviewed.
At the beginning of YP's visits, no-one agreed to talk with her until she announced that she did not belong to UNHCR, but was from an independent group working with refugees. One refugee confessed a fear of speaking out, "We shall face punishment for talking to you; but never mind, you have to know."
Refugees mistrust UNHCR, fearing collusion between UNHCR and the authorities of Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is understood that all the names of the refugees in the camps have been submitted to Myanmar authorities, regardless of whether or not the refugees have volunteered to return. They also claimed that if anyone complains to UNHCR about mistreatment, they are sure to be beaten, jailed or sent to transit camps.
It is notable that the rate of repatriation has drastically decreased from November 1993, after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between UNHCR and the Government of Myanmar. According to the refugees, this is explained by the fact that during this period they began to regain hope that UNHCR would protect them from being returned to Myanmar if conditions did not prove safe; thus, they resisted forced repatriation.
The interviews showed that refugees resist repatriation for the folio whig reasons:
Lack of security
Not having property returned to them upon repatriation
Restriction of movement
Compulsory training courses for girls
Not getting proper identity papers
Extortion by the army
A large majority of the interviewees outlined political conditions for returning. These were:
• The liberation of Aung Suu Kyi
• Freedom of access to the whole country
When asked what democracy meant to them, some replied: " If I have a cow, the army can't take it away from me." Or, "If there are three brothers in a house, all of them enjoy the same rights."
A large number of people expressed fear for their sons or themselves because of involvement with the Rohingyas Solidarity Organization (RSO), an opposition group. Said one, "Anybody who has been directly or indirectly associated with the Rohingyas Solidarity Organization is likely to be arrested, or executed."
Frequently, young men marry in order to avoid accusations by the SLORC of political activism. Especially the students are afraid of going back. Some who have been jailed or tortured in Myanmar and have escaped cannot imagine a safe return.
According to a teacher in one camp, 6 young men from Dundumia and 2 from Gundhum forced back in November 1993 have been accused of being involved with the RSO and were arrested. The whereabouts of 4 of them is unknown but two of them from Ghorakhali village, Mongdow district, are reportedly in jail in Mongdow.
Another source quoted that one 20 year old man, repatriated in November 1993 from Dhoa Palong Camp to Kullaung, Mongdow, has been executed for his involvement with the RSO.
When asked if UNHCR assistance is an incentive to return, not one person gave a positive reply. Many of the women haven't even heard of it. One man said: "UNHCR will give us two months food, but how important do you think it is compared to the lack of justice, peace and security."
The Bangladeshi's mistreatment of refugees is general knowledge, but UNHCR appears to be under pressure from Dhaka and Geneva to expedite the repatriation; their position vis-a-vis the GOB is not strong. Thus, there is a tendency to say: "Since we cannot protect the refugees in Bangladesh, it is better to have them go back to Myanmar."
Protection poses a serious problem and the UNHCR staff carrying this responsibility is insufficient in number (14 persons for 18 camps).
The need for increased protection was not always echoed by foreign government representatives in Dhaka. In an initial briefing by one foreign embassy official, it was reported that, "The situation is under control; there is no policy of forced repatriation and conditions in the refugee camps have improved (better food and medical treatment). It is clear that the refugees trust UNHCR and feel relieved by its presence."
Among Bangladesh officials, RI's representative discussed the fact that over hasty repatriation could be counter productive and damaging to the public image of Bangladesh.
According to a leader of an opposition group, the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) wants to expedite the repatriation hi order to terminate it before the elections of 1995. Specifically, "The situation in Myanmar has not improved", he said, "and unless UNHCR makes a tremendous effort and the SLORC changes its politics, there is a risk that people will be refugees again."
UN personnel in Bangladesh also expressed similar concern about Bangladesh authorities pressing for repatriation and their desire to cancel the confidential interviews by UNHCR.
Co-ordination between UNHCR Bangladesh and UNHCR Myanmar and between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as between UNHCR and the GOB is poor. For example, border crossing from either side is restricted for UNHCR staff and therefore their meetings are problematic to arrange. In addition, the computer systems are not readily compatible between UNHCR in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
So far, there have been no tripartite meetings between the GOB, the GOM and UNHCR. To complicate matters, the agreements signed by UNHCR with the GOM and the GOM differ in many aspects, especially regarding the repatriation deadline.
UNHCR has had difficulties negotiating obstacles to obtaining food and supplies held in customs. UN shipments of soap and blended food were reportedly held for a year hi customs before finally being exempted from taxes. In another case, failure to obtain a customs clearance forced UNHCR to send a shipment back to Europe.
Difficult relations between GOB/ UNHCR/ NGOs:
UNHCR is often accused of delaying repatriation. The local press characterize UNHCR this way, increasing tension and turning public opinion against UNHCR and the refugees.
The GOB is putting a lot of pressure on UNHCR to finish repatriation by the end of the year. One way seen to expedite the process is to put an end to interviews by UNHCR. Underground tensions are increasing daily. Said an NGO representative, "Political differences of opinion undermine somewhat UNHCR's effectiveness."
When asked to explain the reasons for the new arrivals seeking protection in the camps, various officials said that some are previous refugees who were already forced back to Arakan but are returning to fetch their families. The Myanmar perspective is that they are returning because of UNHCR's assistance. A recent news report would seem to confirm, however, that tension between the government and the Muslim minority in Burma still runs high. Reportedly, there have been clashes between SLORC military and the Burmese Muslim guerrillas.
Although NGOs are aware of the refugees' situation and their mistreatment by the authorities, is difficult for them to act. However, all NGOs identified that improved protection for this group is a primary need.
Sample Interviews with Rohingyas April 1994 - Bangladesh
#1) Mrs. M
25 years old
originally from Bussidan
Dechua Palong 2
Mrs. M left Burma because the army confiscated her land and built on it.
Asked about UNHCR assistance, she said that she has not heard of it: "Husbands generally do not discuss such matters with their wives." She believes that the presence of UNHCR in Arakan is positive, but that the SLORC should let the refugees know by radio or television that they are accepted. "If we put our legs in the fire, we will be burnt", she said when asked about going back to Myanmar.
Question: Under which conditions would you return?
Answer: If there is security hi Myanmar; otherwise, I would rather face the many problems and struggles
of life in a refugee camp. I have no faith in the SLORC; it would be better to die here instead of
#2) Mrs. Z
65 years old
originally from Mongdow
Camp: Dhoa Palong
This is her third time as a refugee: Once during the war, then in 1978, and now. Two of her children died of hunger in the refugee camps in 1978.
Question: Why did you leave Myanmar?
Answer: In order to stay loyal to my religious beliefs. I wanted to keep my faith untainted. You can
ask any good Muslim woman, they would agree with me.
Question: Under which conditions would you return to Myanmar?
Answer: Religious freedom, the right to work, freedom to travel at will, no forced labor, treatment as
an equal to the Maughs and democracy.
#3) Mr. G
40 years old
married, one wife, 3 children
Dhoa Palong camp
Question: Under what conditions would you accept to return?
Answer: Under no pretext if the situation has not improved in Myanmar. Refugees are facing many problems in the camp, forced deportation, beating, mistreatment, the presence of "collaborators". But in spite of all this, I will do all that I can to stay here. "If we go back," he added, "it is to be treated as the inhabitants of Myanmar."
#4) Mr. M
29 years old married, 3 children Nayapara 2 transit camp
With tears in his eyes, Mr. H tells how he had been beaten, forced into a vehicle and taken to this camp.
Question: What did you do in Myanmar?
Answer: Farmer. I had 48 gunnies of land and 22 cows.
Question: Why did you leave?
Answer: The army has confiscated my land; my neighbors have been tortured, so I left with my family
and came to Bangladesh.
Question: Are you considering returning to Myanmar?
Answer: No. But I fear for my wife and children if I say "no" at the UNHCR interview.
He has been told that the situation in Myanmar is more difficult than before. From various sources, he has heard that young girls of 15 or over are taken away from their families and that a returnee from Gundhum, accused of having been trained by the RSO, has been shot and killed.
Question: Why is it that many people declare their readiness to return voluntarily?
Answer: If they do not, they will be imprisoned, beaten or killed. For survival's sake, the answer must
#5) Mr. D
29 years old, married Nayapara 2 transit camp
When in Gundhum 1 camp, Mr. D one day left the camp without permission to visit his brother in another camp. He was arrested by security and given two options: jail or repatriation. He ended up in a transit camp with his family.
Question: Are you reassured by UNHCR's presence in Myanmar?
Answer: On what basis do they send us to Myanmar? Under which nationality? On what guarantee? This
While in Gundhum, he never visited UNHCR because "those who do are jailed, beaten or sent to a transit camp." For example, 16 were recently arrested during prayers at the mosque and sent to transit camps for having talked to UNHCR.
Mr. D would like UNHCR to inform people of the conditions of their return, what sort of a reception they would get and whether they could expect to be considered citizens of Myanmar. He expressed fear caused by a Myanmar radio announcement stating that the Bengali muslims returning to Bangladesh were violating the law. He is afraid he may be punished for this.
#6) Mrs. Z
Widow, 6 children (does not know her age) Nayapara Transit camp
While in Gundhum 3 camp, she was forcibly transported to me transit camp along with ten other families. Yet she was paid 6000 takas and US$100 (borrowed) to a "collaborator" called H, so as not to be repatriated. The collaborator took and kept the money, yet she nevertheless had problems with the authorities. She reported this to UNHCR and was accused by die collaborator of doing so. She was consequently taken to the transit camp.
Mr. H is well known for taking money from people, said Mrs. Z. The system seems to be that you either pay, or are jailed or repatriated. Mr. H took the family food token books in order to force people into going to the transit camp.