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USCR'S JUN/JUL-96 SITE VISIT REPORT
Subject: USCR'S JUN/JUL-96 SITE VISIT REPORT ON ROHINGYAS
/* Posted 23 Nov 6:00am 1996 by drunoo@xxxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.burma */
/* ----------------" USCR report on Rohingya, July 1996 "-------------- */
U.S. COMMITTEE FOR REFUGEES
1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 701. Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202)347-3507 . Fax: (202) 347-3418.
(USCR is a public information and advocacy program of Immigration and
Refugee Services of America. Established in 1958, USCR encourages the
American public to participate actively in efforts to assist the world's
USCR SITE VISIT TO BANGLADESH, JUNE 20 - JULY 1, 1996
This summary was prepared by USCR Policy Analyst Tom Argent and Hiram A.
As of July 1996, about 200,000 of the 250,000 Rohingyas who fled to
Bangladesh in 1991-92 had repatriated to Burma, leaving only 50,000
Rohingyas in Bangladesh's five remaining refugee camps. The repatriation
program has been underway for nearly four years. Despite the involvement of
the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some observers have charged
that the repatriation is not fully voluntary. Bangladesh is not a signatory
to the UN Refugee Convention.
In early 1996, even while the controversial repatriation continued, an
estimated 10,000 or more Burmese Rohingyas entered Bangladesh. While many
of these new arrivals apparently have come to Bangladesh for the first
time, some of them are former refugees who had previously repatriated. This
"reverse flow" again highlights concerns about the repatriation and about
Bangladesh's policies toward refugees and asylum seekers.
In addition to USCR, other NGOs have expressed concern regarding the
situation of the recently arrived Roahingya refugees. Medecins Sans
Frontieres (MSF)- Holland, MSF-France, and Human Rights Watch(Asia), which
is also planning to issue a report on the Rohingyas, have all communicated
their concerns to UNHCR. USCR shared a draft copy of this report with UNHCR
headquarters staff in Geneva, and has noted several of UNHCR's comments in
PURPOSE OF SITE VISIT
The purpose of the site visit was to assess the recent influx from Burma,
including conditions for the new arrivals and their reasons for entering
Bangladesh, to evaluate the status of the repatriation program for Burmese
Rohingya refugees, and to recommend policies to the government of
Bangladesh and UNHCR that, if implemented, would improve protection and
assistance for refugees in Bangladesh.
FINDINGS REGARDING RECENT ARRIVALS
1) An estimated 10,000 or more Rohingyas from Burma arrived in Bangladesh
beginning in late February/early March 1996.
2) The influx apparently ended by mid-June, perhaps as a result of
stepped-up interdiction by both Bangladeshi and Burmese authorities, and
active UNHCr campaign to discourage Rohingyas from entering Bangladesh, the
onset of the rainy season, and, according to some accounts, new Burmese
guarantees of safety for Rohingyas.
3) At least some of the recent arrivals appear to be refugees. Recent
arrivals say that Rohingyas are disproportionately subjected to forced
labour, taxation, and physical abuse in Burma, making it impossible for
them to maintain normal lives.
4) One quarter to one third of the recent arrivals are believed to be
former refugees who had repatriated to Burma during the past four years.
5) Officially, the government of Bangladesh denies that there are any
recent arrivals -- except for the estimated 200 recent arrivals whom
Bangladesh has jailed. UNHCR does not have access to the jailed recent
6) Bangladesh has forcibly repatriated or blocked the entry of at least
1,000 recent arrivals and would-be arrivals.
7) Several hundred recent arrivals are staying illegally in the five
remaining refugee camps. However, most have sought shelter outside the
camps, either on their own, or with Bangladeshi hosts. Unconfirmed reports
indicate that hundreds of additional recent arrivals may have entered
Bangladesh by land, and are hiding in areas near Bangladesh's Chittagong
Hill Tracts region.
8) Bangladesh does not permit the UN or NGOs to provide humanitarian
assistance to recent arrivals. Consequently, the physical condition of many
recent arrivals has significantly deteriorated. NGOs are concerned that
this deterioration in the health of the recent arrivals could negatively
affect both the existing camp population and Bangladeshis.
9) Although the Bangladesh government has not formally granted UNHCR access
to any of the recent arrivals, by the time of USCR's visit, UNHCR had
interviewed more than 300 heads of household among the recent arrivals.
However, UNHCR has not conducted formal status determinations.
10) Based on a preliminary evaluation of some 26 such interviews, UNHCR
indicated that it considered the recent arrivals to be economic migrants.
Bangladesh authorities invoked this apparent UNHCR position as
justification for their refusal to consider that any "refugees" have
recently arrived in Bangladesh.
11) UNHCR - apparently with the support of the ruling military junta in
Burma - has actively discouraged Rohingyas from entering Bangladesh.
FINDINGS REGARDING REPATRIATION
1) The repatriation of Rohingya refugees form Bangladesh cannot be
considered fully voluntary. Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh believe
they have no choice but to return to Burma. Although refugees who may fear
repatriation have ample opportunity to inform UNHCR that they d not wish to
return to Burma, most do not see such opposition to repatriation as a
2) In the past, Bangladeshi camp authorities employed beatings and other
physical abuse to convince refugees that they should "volunteer" to
repatriate. Such abuses have diminished. However, Bangladeshi authorities
continue to use more subtle methods of coercion. these include withholding
food rations, threatening to withhold food rations, showing refugees
photographs of Vietnamese being forcibly repatriated, and other actions
that reinforce the notion that Rohingyas cannot remain in Bangladesh.
3) In early 1996, more serious abuses, including beatings, began to recur
in the camps. For a short period, Bangladesh refused to provide UNHCR with
lists of those refugees scheduled to repatriate.
4) At least some refugees who repatriated to Burma and later reentered
Bangladesh reported that authorities in Burma beat them for having visited
a UNHCR office in Burma to report problems they were experiencing.
5) In part because of Burma's slowness in providing official clearance for
potential returnees, the repatriation program for Rohingyas is likely to
continue well into 1997, if not beyond.
Clearly, both Bangladesh and Burma should respect the basic human and legal
rights of Burmese Rohingya. It is because they have not done so that the
following recommendations are also necessary:
1) Bangladesh should acknowledge the recent influx from Burma and agree to
an open, verifiable status determination process, in close collaboration
2) Bangladesh should permit NGOs and the UN to provide humanitarian
assistance to those recent arrivals who need it. It should also accede and
abide by the UN Refugee Convention.
3) UNHCR should vigorously encourage the Bangladeshi government to adopt
the policies listed above.
4) UNHCR should consider the recent arrivals as potentially of concern
until proven otherwise.
5) UNHCR should abandon its efforts to discourage persons who may have
well-founded fears of persecution from exercising their right to leave
Burma and seek asylum in other countries.
6) Authorities in Burma should amend Burma's citizenship laws so that
long-time Rohingya residents are acknowledged as citizens.
7) Bangladesh should not coerce refugees to return to Burma.
8) Authorities in Burma should speed the approval process for those
refugees in Bangladesh who do wish to repatriate.
1991-1992 Beginning in late 1991, thousands of Burmese Muslims, known as
Rohingyas, began to enter Bangladesh from Arakan (Rakhine) state in Burma.
By the end of 1991, some 30,000 Rohingyas had crossed the Naf River and
entered Bangladesh. During a USCR site visit, Rohingyas reported widespread
human rights abuses at the hands of Burmese security forces, including
forced labor and porterage, torture, rapes, and killings. During the first
quarter of 1992, the influx grew, reaching 150,000 by April. A survey in
June 1992 put the population at 250,000.
Initially, the government of Bangladesh tolerated the presence of the
rohingyas. However, as the influx continued, that tolerance wore thin.
Bangladesh and Burma signed a repatriation agreement in late April 1992,
even though the influx was still in full swing. Despite that agreement, few
refugees volunteered to repatriate. Reports surfaced of abuses of refugees
by Bangladeshi camp authorities. Reported abuses included beatings and
withholding of food rations, apparently in an attempt to coerce refugees to
repatriate. The authorities also restricted UNHCR's and NGO's access to the
By late 1992, Bangladesh had begun to repatriate small numbers of Rohingya
refugees. Although the government claimed that the repatriations were
voluntary, it did not permit UNHCR to interview all prospective returnees
to determine the degree of voluntariness. Some of those whom UNHCR was
permitted to interview said that they did not want to return to Burma. In
December, UNHCR announced that it would no longer participate in the
repatriation programme. Nonetheless, by the end of 1992, some 6,000
refugees had returned -- voluntarily or involuntarily -- to Burma.
1993 In May 1993, Bangladesh and UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding
(MOU) in which both pledged to cooperate to ensure the "safe and voluntary
repatriation of .. refugees who opt to return on the basis of their own
judgment of the situation in their country." Bangladesh then allowed UNHCR
to have full daytime access to the camps and transit centres. In November,
UNHCR announced that it had signed an MOU with Burma that permitted the
agency to assist returnees in Burma. During 1993, more than 52,000
Rohingyas repatriated from Bangladesh, of whom some 36,000 repatriated with
assistance from UNHCR.
1994 Despite the involvement of UNHCR on both sides of the border, the
repatriation program remained controversial. A number of nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), including USCR, the FRench and Dutch branches of
Medecins Sans Frontieres, and Refugees International, critized the program,
saying that the repatriation was not truly voluntary, as the Bangladeshi
authorities continued to employ abusive tactics, including intimidation,
withholding of food rations, and physical abuse, clearly aimed at forcing
the refugees to "volunteer" to repatriate. During 1994, more than 82,000
Rohingyas repatriated from Bangladesh; others reportedly fled the camps
because they did not want to repatriate. At the close of 1994, the departed
camp population in Bangladesh was some 115,000.
1995 During 1995, the repatriation continued, with an additional 61,000
Rohingyas returning to Burma during the year. UNHCR asserted that it was
adequately monitoring the well-being of the returnees in Burma, and that
the returnees were generally well-received. However, critics of the
repatriation expressed concern over UNHCR's positive assessment given the
small number of UNHCR protection staff in Burma, the difficulty in reaching
remote areas of the region, and UNHCR's use of interpreters who, while
independently recruited by UNHCR, NGOs feared may have to answer to the
EVENTS OF 1996
In late February and early March 1996, reports began to surface that a new
influx of Roningyas from Burma was underway. Many had already entered
Bangladesh, and thousands were reportedly planning to do so. By mid-May,
UNHCR had received credible reports that some 5,500 Rohingyas had succeeded
in reaching Bangladesh. Another 1,000 were reported to have arrived during
the next months. Sources at the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs
told USCR that Bangladeshi security forces intercepted more than, 1,000
other Rohingyas attempting to enter Bangladesh and forcibly returned them
to Burma. In one incident in April, 15 Rohingyas drowned when their boat
capsized while Bangladeshi authorities were attempting to force it back to
To date, Bangladesh has refused to acknowledge officially the existence of
the new arrivals. (An exception is made for the estimated 200 recent
arrivals who are in prison, charged with smuggling or illegal entry. UNHCR
does not have access to these detainees.) Observers reported that there is
great variation in the treatment meted out to recent arrivals; one
12-year-old girl is believed to have been raped by members of Bangladesh's
border security force, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). However, abuses of this
scale seem to be the exception. Although recent arrivals have occasionally
been arrested, individual BDR contingents generally only harass recent
arrivals, rather than arrest them. The goal of the harassment seems to be
to force the recent arrivals into territory that is the responsibility of
other BDR contingents.
Most of recent arrivals interviewed by USCR reported combination of
reasons for entering Bangladesh. Reasons cited included substantial forced
labour, high taxes ( in the form of cash, food, or other materials),
beatings, rape or fear of rape, and restrictions on movement. They
attributed these alleged abuses to the NaSaKa (the Burmese border patrol),
the Burmese army, or to burmese military intelligence units. Some recent
arrivals described the alleged abuses in general terms, while others
provided much greater detail, pointing to specific events that spurred them
Observers estimate that between one quarter and one third of the recent
arrivals appear to be former refugees who repatriated to Burma in past
years. This reverse flow has fueled concern about the degree to which UNHCR
has been able to guarantee the safety of returnees, to monitor their
well-being, and to assist their reintegration.
One man, "Ali", told USCR that he had repatriated to Burma in JUne 1994. He
said that authorities in Burma required him to report for roll call every
morning, noon, and evening. He said that at the time he repatriated, he
believed he would be able to recover the possessions and land that he left
behind when he had first fled to bangladesh. However, he said that upon
returning he was not able to regain his property. He told USCR that he
visited a UNHCR office in Burma to report this problem, and that UNHCR
staff said they would look into the matter.
Ali asserted that NaSaKa troops observed him entering the UNHCR office, and
that they later beat him and his son because he had complained to UNHCR. He
said that the NaSaKa troops knocked out one of his son's teeth using what,
from his description, appeared to be brass knuckles. Later, he said, the
NaSaKa charged his son with being a supporter of the Rohingya Solidarity
Organization (RSO), a rebel group opposed to the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC), the military junta that rules Burma. Ali said
that the authorities extorted money from him for the release of his son
A number of recent arrivals, including Ali, asserted that they were
required to perform extensive forced labour; they said that although
officially the forced labour requirement was only three or four days per
month, the period of forced labor was often extended to several weeks each
month. They also said that they were required to provide military outposts
with a certain amount of wood each month, which reduced the time available
to them to farm.
Many recent arrivals said that the labour they were required to perform
invariably lasted longer than the three or four days officially required.
All recent arrivals interviewed by USCR asserted that Rohingyas were
required to perform forced labor for longer periods or more frequently than
were mon-Muslims in Burma; some asserted that other Burmese were called for
forced labor only when there were no Rohingyas available.
Bangladeshi officials, and some UNHCR staff, assert that the recent
arrivals have come to Bangladesh primarily for economic reasons. Such an
interpretation raises tow issues: the first is the accuracy of the accounts
provided by the recent arrivals; the second is whether those accounts - if
accurate - constitute "persecution," the standard that the UN Refugee
Convention sets for determining refugee status.
Most of the recent arrivals appear to be relatively poor. They assert that
the Burmese authorities' demands for taxes and forced labor make it
impossible for them to survive; they say that if they must perform two
weeks of forced labor each month, there is not enough time to grow their
own food, and that a high level of taxation -- paid in cash, food, or other
items -- further reduces their ability to survive.
UNHCR and Bangladeshi officials have emphasized the economic component of
this explanation. UNHCR staff have publicly asserted that the recent influx
is due primarily to economic conditions in Burma. Privately, Bangladeshi
officials say that the main reason the recent arrivals have come is to find
wage-paying employment in Bangladesh.
Local and international humanitarian workers acknowledge that economics
plays a large role in the current situation, but that the relative economic
standing of the Rohingyas is in large part a product of the policies of the
Burmese authorities. Some humanitarian workers say that if the Rohingyas
are poor and cannot survive in Burma, it is because they are abused and
prevented form leading normal lives. These workers point out that Rohingyas
who have repatriated know that they are not wanted in Bangladesh and that
conditions are bad for Rohingyas in Bangladesh; that so many returnees have
apparently entered Bangladesh again must indicate that conditions in Burma
are particularly bad.
THE ROLE OF UNHCR
Some NGOs have criticized UNHCR's role during the recent influx. UNHCR has
unofficially interviewed some 350 heads of household. During the early
stages of the influx, UNHCR forwarded 26 such interviews to its Burma
office, requesting that the new arrivals' stories be investigated. UNHCR
has asserted that its investigations in Burma showed that statements made
by recent arrivals are not credible or are exaggerated, and that Rohingyas
in Arakan are generally not subjected to persecution as defined in the UN
Press quotes attributed to UNHCR staff in Dhaka have labeled the recent
arrivals as economic migrants, saying that the forced labor about which the
Rohingyas complain does not constitute persecution because all Burmese are
required to perform it. Further, these press quotes have suggested that if
the international community provides assistance to the recent arrivals,
thousands more Rohingyas will attempt to enter Bangladesh. During USCR's
site visit, government officials invoked these UNHCR statements in denying
the existence of any new refugees. The officials said that if UNHCR is not
concerned about the alleged recent arrivals, the NGO community should not
On May 15, UNHCR's office in Maungdaw, Burma issued an 11-point leaflet
titled "information on New Departures/Arrivals -- apparently approved by
SLORC -- that caused refugee advocates concern.
The leaflet states that Bangladesh is not permitting recent arrivals to
live in camps, and that "the international community is not providing any
assistance" to recent arrivals. The leaflet warns that "the majority of new
departures/arrivals are hiding from the Bangladesh authorities and are
facing extremely difficult living conditions." "In view of the above," says
the leaflet, "careful consideration should be given prior to leaving
Myanmar [Burma]." Taken as a whole, the leaflet's intent appears to be to
convince Rohingyas that they should not flee to Bangladesh. Although
Bangladesh's antipathy toward hosting any Rohingya refugees is well known,
observers question whether it is appropriate for UNHCR to attempt to
dissaude would-be refugees from fleeing, particularly given SLORC's widely
criticized human rights record.
CONDITIONS FOR RECENT ARRIVALS
Officially, the government of Bangladesh holds that there are no recently
arrived Rohingyas in Bangladesh (with the exception of those in jail). It
has not authorized UNHCR or NGOs to assist recent arrivals. In one
incident, a Bangladeshi camp official warned NGO staff that anyone who
assisted recent arrivals would be "wanted," suggesting that they could be
at risk. Bangladesh has reportedly rejected a UNHCR request for medical
access to vulnerable recent arrivals.
Despite the official prohibition on assisting recent arrivals, hundreds who
are in fact living in the five camps that remain are indirectly benefiting
form aid to refugees -- though that means that the established refugees
have less for themselves. However, most of the new arrivals are living
outside the camps, either in makeshift shelters or with Bangladeshi
families. Some -- especially those who live with host families -- appear to
be in reasonably good health. Many others, however, are in increasingly
NGOs that work in the health sector report that they are being approached
by an increasing number of recent arrivals with health problems,
particularly fevers, respiratory tract problems, and malaria. Except in
emergency cases, the NGOs cannot assist them for fear of angering the
Bangladeshi government. NGOs worry that with onset of the rainy season,
recent arrivals' health will deteriorate, which could also adversely affect
the pre-existing refugee populaiton and local Bangladeshis.
Some recent arrivals have been able to find work in brickyards,
agricultural fields, or in the illegal, Bangladeshi-run, wood-cutting
industry. Employers pay Rohingyas about half the daily wage they pay
Bangladeshi workers. Wage-paying jobs are said to be more difficult to find
during the rainy season, however. Newly arrived families that to date have
been able to buy their own food may find themselves without income in the
Among the most vulnerable recent arrivals are the families of those who
have been arrested. Generally, it is the men who are able to find
wage-paying labour, if it is available. Women whose husbands have been
jailed are generally unable to earn any income with which to buy food or
obtain medical care for themselves or their children.
More than 200,000 Burmese Rohingyas have repatriated -- voluntarily or
involuntarily -- from Bangladesh during the past four years. The majority
of the 50,000 Rohingyas who remain have no long-term future in Bangladesh.
The government of Bangladesh clearly does not want them to remain, and
UNHCR appears unable to persuade Bangladesh to relent. This is well
understood by the refugees.
During the first several years of the Rohingyas refugees' stay in
Bangladesh, camp authorities often used beatings and other intimidation in
order to coerce the Rohingyas to "volunteer" to repatriate. UNHCR
involvement in the repatriation has moderated the behavior of camp
authorities, particularly during the past two years. However, the
Bangladeshi authorities have learned that they can achieve similar results
using more subtle methods, including withholding food rations or even
simply threatening to withhold food rations.
During the 1996 influx (which occurred at the same times as unrelated,
pre-election political turmoil in Bangladesh), these more subtle but
nevertheless coercive tactics increased in frequency. Other, less subtle
tactics, including sporadic beatings, also reportedly made a recurrence.
For a brief time, Bangladeshi authorities refused to provide UNHCR with
lists of those scheduled to repatriate, raising concern among some UNHCR
staff that the repatriation program was going to further off course.
Today, prospective returnees have ample opportunity to tell UNHCR that they
do not want to repatriate. However, relatively few take that step. It
appears that most -- even those who have not voluntarily arrived at the
decision to repatriate -- are resigned to the notion that they must return
to Burma, regardless of the situation there. By the time they reach the
departure point on the Naf River, whatever level of coercion that exists
has already taken its toll. The beatings in the early stages of their stay
in Bangladesh have been reinforced by the camp authorities' incessant
pronouncements over loudspeakers that they must return. UNHCR's assertion
that it is safe for them to repatriate is, for most, the final straw in
recognizing that they cannot remain in Bangladesh.
Although many Rohingya refugees do not want to repatriate, others are
frustrated that they have not yet been able to repatriate. Authorities in
Burma are slow to provide the official clearances required for refugees to
repatriate. Even if all Rohingyas truly wanted to repatriate, the slow rate
of clearances would make the repatriation drag on until well into 1997, if
not longer. How the new influx will affect the repatriation program, and
how, when, or if the new arrivals will return to Burma, remains to be seen.
UNHCR COMMENTS AFTER REVIEWING THIS SITE VISIT REPORT
On UNHCR's involvement in the repatriation:
IN the absence of a better alternative,....[UNHCR] decided to
become actively involved in the repatriation in order to ensure its
voluntary character in the country of asylum and ... that the repatriates
can safely return to their respective villages... Whilst not denying that
this voluntary repatriation programme, unique in its many facets, remains a
challenge to UNHCR, our presence has made a difference on a number of
issues. They are, for example: UNHCR's unhindered access.. to monitor
returnees, successful interventions with local and central authorities
concerning the treatment of individual returnees ... the issuance of
Identity Cards by the authorities to non-citizens of the northern Rakhine
State, and a general improvement of the living conditions in the area.
On forced labour in Burma:
With respect to the issue of compulsory or so-called forced labour,
UNHCR continues to seek the total elimination of this practice. However, as
it is a nationwide practice in existence since many decades, the impact of
our intervention is limited. As for the situation in the Rakhine [Arakan]
State, there has been a gradual reduction in the use and frequency of
compulsory labor during the last two years. Recently, we have received
confirmed reports of villagers being aid for activities which used to be
carried out by compulsory labor.
On new arrivals from Burma in Bangladesh:
With regard to the issue of new arrivals, UNHCR's priority remains
to gain official access to all new arrivals. No deportations should take
place without affording those who wish to seek an interview with UNHCR [an
opportunity to do so] and therefore access remains our primary concern.
UNHCR continues to raise this issue with the Bangladesh authorities at the
highest level. Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to gather information on the new
arrivals... NO[new arrivals'] claims [of persecution] have been
substantiated. Recent verification exercises indicates a tendency of
alleging old incidents... as if they had taken place recently... Despite
these indications, UNHCR continues to interview and cross verify the claims
of new arrivals in order to ensure the accuracy of our findings....
On UNHCR's "information campaign" in Burma:
We also wish to refer to our information campaign... It has been a
UNHCR practice even before the recent outflow to inform, in an objective
and factual manner, those who expressed to UNHCR their intention to leave
Myanmar about the situation in Bangladesh while at the same time respecting
the individual's right to freedom of movement... During the month of May,
.... UNHCR came to learn that rumors were spreading that cash and
food assistance would be handed out by UNHCR to those wanting to go to
Bangladesh... Many of those who UNHCR met before or at the departure point
are returnees who hoped to receive the same assistance as they had enjoyed
earlier... UNHCR decided to produce a leaflet in order to provide factual
information...[that] UNHCR believes... gave would be departees a
well-informed choice and reduces the number of those who otherwise would
have suffered untenable circumstances in Bangladesh.
On "safe and voluntary return":
Form the majority of those in camps in Bangladesh, in our view, the
most viable durable and desirable solution is repatriation to Myanmar...
The most important aspect of our operation is to safeguard the principles
of a safe and voluntary return... UNHCR staff are also present during
medical checks before departure and at the departure point... Should anyone
change his/her mind... they are immediately .. returned to their camp.
Despite the above safeguard, UNHCR indeed receives isolated reports of
coercion or physical abuse....[and therefore] has further strengthened its
international presence at departure points.
NOte: These comments are excerpted from a letter to USCR from Francois
Foulnat, Director, UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and Oceania, dated August
/* Endreport */