Between July 20 and 22, 1997, the Bangladesh government forcibly repatriated some 400 refugees belonging to the Rohingya minority of Burma's northern Arakan state. The repatriations, which drew international protests, highlighted the dilemma facing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the international community in addressing the Rohingya situation. When the host government's patience runs out, and abuses are continuing in the country from which the refugees fled, what choices are available?

The 400 repatriated were among a group of 21,400 refugees remaining in two camps in the Cox's Bazaar district of Bangladesh from a much larger group of Rohingyas who fled persecution by Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1991 and 1992.1 With the help of the UNHCR, tens of thousands voluntarily returned to Burma beginning in 1994, and a UNHCR team in Arakan was on hand to monitor their reintegration. But even as the refugees were returning, new arrivals continued to cross into Bangladesh, with over 10,000 arriving between March and July 1997 alone. Some of the 1997 arrivals reported that forced labor, arbitrary taxation, and the confiscation of Muslim property were continuing in northern Arakan, despite the UNHCR's presence. These abuses are part of systematic discrimination against Rohingyas, and amount to persecution according to criteria established by the UNHCR. Their exodus suggested serious flaws in the repatriation and reintegration program, and a need to reexamine both that program and Burma's practices in Arakan. The exodus also intensified the fears of those left in the refugee camp, making them more unwilling than ever to return, but at the same time, the option of resettlement in Bangladesh has been ruled out by the Bangladesh government.

This report, based on research conducted by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch/Asia, including a mission to Bangladesh by a Refugees International researcher in July 1997, is intended to encourage more openness by everyone involved in the search for a lasting solution which will ensure that the rights of the Rohingyas are respected. Both organizations recognize that the UNHCR's presence in Arakan is essential to monitor the situation for the returnees and, in cases of human rights violations, to intervene as necessary with authorities both locally and in Rangoon. But they remain concerned that UNHCR is not fully acknowledging the ongoing problems in Arakan, and this has two consequences: refugees cannot make an informed decision as to whether they should return to Burma, and the international community is unable to assist the UNHCR in pressing the Burmese government to cease its abusive practices.

The report describes the forced repatriations, and conditions for the new arrivals in Bangladesh. It then documents the abuses committed by the SLORC against the Rohingyas in Burma, including forced labor, arbitrary taxation, confiscation of property and restrictions on freedom of movement. These abuses are linked to the Rohingyas' status as non-citizens in Burma, a status which the Burmese government has thus far refused to alter. This policy is in clear violation of international standards on the elimination of statelessness. Human Rights Watch/Asia and Refugees International conclude that as long as individuals and families continue to flee Burma, temporary asylum in Bangladesh is critical, and the UNHCR should seek to maintain the camps there and assist the new arrivals. The longer term solution, however, lies in improving the human rights situation inside Burma, and for this, theinvolvement of the international community, and especially the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) which recently admitted Burma as a member, is crucial.


Human Rights Watch and Refugees International make the following recommendations:

To the Bangladesh Government

* Bangladesh should continue to offer temporary asylum to Rohingyas fleeing abuse in Burma. Any attempts to use force to push asylum seekers back to Burma or physically prevent them from entering Bangladesh would violate the principle of non-refoulement, which is an obligation on all states under customary international law. Refoulement means to expel or return a refugees in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, as defined in the Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

* Bangladesh should grant the UNHCR immediate and continued access to all refugees arriving in Bangladesh.

* The Bangladesh government should demonstrate its commitment to international human rights standards by becoming a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.

* Bangladesh should seek to cooperate with the UNHCR in resettling the 5,000 refugees who have been screened by the UNHCR and recognized as persons with a well-founded fear of persecution.

To the State Law and Order Restoration Council

* As a matter of urgency, the SLORC should immediately amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Act "to abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens"- requirements that, as the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma points out, have "discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities." The SLORC should also grant the Muslims of Arakan full citizenship and accompanying rights, in particular the right to freedom of movement.

* The SLORC should immediately cease the practice of forced labor in Arakan and across Burma in compliance with the 1930 International Labor Organization Convention on Forced Labor, which the Burmese government signed in 1955.

* The SLORC should also cease practices such as arbitrary taxation, confiscation of property without compensation and the denial of freedom of movement within Arakan, which together violate the right of Rohingyas to equal protection under the law, as set forth in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

* The government should permit the new U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma, Justice Rajsoomer Lallah to visit Burma and northern Arakan in time for him to report to the U.N. General Assembly in November. During that visit, he should be guaranteed free and confidential access to residents.

* Human rights abuses in Arakan are a reflection of the situation all over the country. To address those conditions, the government of Burma should implement the main human rights components of 1996 U.N. General Assembly Resolution and the 1997 U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution on Burma, with particular attention to the paragraphs concerning the rights to freedom of movement, association and expression.

To the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

* The UNHCR must seek to ensure that temporary asylum is maintained for all refugees who have fled Burma.

* The UNHCR should commit itself to a presence in Bangladesh as long as required to monitor the repatriation process and offer protection to new arrivals. This commitment should be made clearly and unequivocally to the government of Bangladesh.

* The UNHCR should continue to press for measures to ensure that any return of Burmese refugees is voluntary as well as for access to those arriving in Bangladesh from Burma. In order to allow refugees to make an informed decision about whether or not to return, the UNHCR must regularly provide detailed and objective information on the situation in Arakan, including information concerning any human rights violations.

* The UNHCR should seek to remain in Arakan beyond the current 1998 deadline, and for as long as required to protect returnees. UNHCR should reconsider its plan to pass on to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) responsibility to develop northern Arakan for the long term reintegration of Rohingyas, as UNDP lacks a protection mandate and staff trained in protection issues.

* The UNHCR should put into practice the recommendations from the U.N. Working Group on International Protection of August 1992 concerning "direct prevention" and work closely with the Secretary-General in carrying out his mandate to ensure the implementation of the 1996 General Assembly resolution on Burma and the work of the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma, with particular attention to the call for Burma to end forced labor and to amend its citizenship law.

To the International Community

* Those governments, notably the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, which have contributed funds to the refugee and repatriation program should encourage Bangladesh to continue allow refugees to enjoy asylum. Donor countries must be prepared to commit funds to the care and maintenance of this population.

* There must be some degree of burden-sharing with regard to those refugees who ultimately cannot return to Burma. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in particular should consider creating a pool from which to draw refugees eligible for third country resettlement. At the same time, a working group should be established within ASEAN to assist in establishing the necessary conditions to prevent further refugee outflows.

* The international community must step up efforts to ensure that the human rights situation in Burma is improved and conditions are created under which the Rohingyas could voluntarily return in safety and dignity. Coordinated pressure must be applied, with western and Asian governments working together through the United Nations Secretary- General's office. Governments should explore ways of exerting economic pressure, including the continued ban on assistance by international financial institutions.


Between December 1991 and March 1992, some 250,000 Rohingya Muslims from Burma's Arakan state fled to Bangladesh.2 At the time the refugees reported summary killings, rape, forced labor, forced portering and religious persecution by the Burmese army which had forced them leave their homes.3 The Bangladesh government granted temporary asylum to the refugees and called on the UNHCR to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid. In April 1992, however, the Bangladesh and Burmese governments came to a bilateral agreement on a repatriation scheme that did not allow for further UNHCR involvement. Some 5,000 refugees were forcibly repatriated under this agreement, until UNHCR's threat to leave the camps finally persuaded the Bangladesh government to cease the repatriation in December 1992. Despite an agreement between Bangladesh and the UNHCR signed in May 1993, nearly 50,000 refugees were involuntarily repatriated by November 1993. In that month the UNHCR finally secured an agreement from the SLORC allowing its representatives to be present in Arakan state, the first U.N. agency to do so. Once ten staff had been appointed and the program was up and running in Arakan, the UNHCR started a mass repatriation program with the cooperation of both sides, which was to have ended in December 1995.

Various factors, including cyclones in May 1994 and May 1996 that devastated the camps, political unrest, and a general strike in Bangladesh in 1996, conspired to slow the repatriation, but over the five years that the program was implemented, two other factors were more important: the reluctance of the refugees to return home when stories from returnees to Bangladesh suggested that little had changed; and constant delays by the Burmese side in clearing refugees for return.4 In a report published in 1996, Human Rights Watch/Asia described in detail the repatriation and reintegration programs and criticized all parties in the repatriation for failing to ensure the protection of refugees.5 That report concluded that the Rohingyas would always remain a vulnerable group as long as the SLORC refused to recognize them as citizens. In this situation, it concluded, the UNHCR must keep the rights of refugees uppermost whenever there is a conflict between the need to publicize and advocate against abuses and the need to maintain good relations with both the country of origin and the host country.

December 1995 came and went, with some 35,000 refugees still in the camps. During 1996 resistance to the repatriation increased, and between January and October only 15,000 returned. The slow rate of return forced all parties to the repatriation to extend the deadline for completion of the operation to March 1997. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the camps were informed in October 1996 that they would all have to leave thecamps by March 31, 1997, after which time, if the repatriation was not completed, Bangladesh authorities, such as the Department of Health and Education, would take over the provision of humanitarian aid in any remaining camps.6

As the March deadline drew near, the newly-elected Awami League government in Bangladesh held extensive negotiations with Burma regarding the refugees. In January an upbeat news commentary on Bangladesh Radio Network reported that the "Myanmar government has agreed to take back all the 26,000 ethnic Rohingyas still living in camps in Bangladesh by the end of March."7 This optimism was short-lived, however, and as the deadline was reached over 20,000 remained in the camps, over half of whom had not been cleared to return by Burma. A new agreement was reached to keep the reception centers in Burma open until the end of April, and an additional 2,000 refugees were cleared. Only 246 of these volunteered to return however, and between April and July there were no further repatriations. Instead, the UNHCR formally proposed that the remaining caseload of 21,400 be resettled in Bangladesh. However, with local hostility towards the refugees increasing, and with Islamic fundamentalist elements actively working within the refugee camps the Bangladesh government refused the offer of increased assistance and resettlement packages.8 UNHCR threatened to end its operations within the camps by the end of June unless the government started to resettle at least the 5,000 refugees who had been classified through the UNHCR status determination procedure as being in fear of persecution.

Further negotiations took place between Burma and Bangladesh, and on July 14 it was announced that Burma would reopen its border for the repatriation of the 7,535 cleared refugees who would be repatriated in groups of 400 every other day until the deadline of August 15.
1 The Rohingyas who arrived during 1991/92 were considered prima facie refugees by the UNHCR and have not been "screened", that is, interviewed by UNHCR protection officers to determine individual fear of persecution. They are all thus referred to throughout this report as refugees. These refugees have been interviewed by UNHCR to determine that they made a voluntary decision to return to Burma, and under the agreement between UNHCR and Bangladesh, they are entitled to a further interview at the point of departure, at which time they may express a fear of return. Of those who have said they do not wish to return to Burma, some 5,000 were screened by UNHCR and classified as having a well-founded fear of persecution and thus entitled to long term protection. The new arrivals, none of whom have been screened, are referred to in this report as asylum-seekers, since they assert a claim to refugee status, and are thus entitled to temporary asylum and assistance while their claims are investigated.2 Arakan state was renamed "Rakhine state" by the current military government in 1990. We continue to use the old name, as "Rakhine" refers to the predominant ethnic minority in Arakan state, and "Arakan" is more inclusive. In a previous exodus of Rohingyas, in 1978, some 200,000 fled to Bangladesh. Most were involuntarily returned to Burma by 1980, but some 20,000 were resettled in Bangladesh.3 See Amnesty International, "Union of Myanmar (Burma): Human Rights Violations against Muslims in Northern Rakhine (Arakan) State," (London: Amnesty International, May 1992); Asia Watch, "Burma: Rape, Forced Labor and Religious Persecution in Northern Arakan," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol.4, no.13, May 1992.4 Under a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Burma, lists of refugees willing to go back to Burma are given to Burmese authorities to enable them to check that the individuals did have habitual residence in Burma before 1991. Only then are they permitted to return. The"'clearing" process can be very lengthy, though in mid-1996 there were suspicions that the Burmese had deliberately slowed the process once the number of returnees reached 200,000. See Human Rights Watch/Asia, "Burma: The Rohingya Muslims - Ending a Cycle of Exodus?"A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 9 (c), September 1996, p.21. 5 Human Rights Watch/Asia, "Ending a Cycle..." pp. 14-21. 6 Despite this threat, the two NGOs (MSF Holland and Concern) working in the two remaining camps were permitted to continue their work there through July 1997.7 Bangladesh Radio Network, January 6, 1997. The Awami League, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was elected in July 1996.8 The Jamaat Islami Party has actively supported Rohingya insurgent groups and political activists since the first mass exodus from Burma to Bangladesh in 1978. By 1997 the entire refugee population was very politically active, with reports of beatings and abuse within camps of those who did not cooperate with the camp bosses. Violence against refugees who have not followed the militant line has been a problem in some camps since 1992 (see Human Rights Watch/Asia "Ending a Cycle.." p.13).