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As detailed above, the conditions and abuses which prompted refugee flows from Arakan over the past decade have still not been addressed raising concern that there are today probably tens of thousands of Rohingya now in Bangladesh who would have good grounds to fear persecution should they return to Arakan. In the meantime, significant problems -- most notably physical abuse and coercion - continue to occur in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Although UNHCR has responded to many complaints and conditions have improved, the combination of lack of funds and the lack of progress in achieving durable solutions to the Rohingya refugee problem have led to renewed pressure to simply sweep the problem under the rug.

Registration: Withholding Essential Services as Leverage

Each refugee family registered in the camps has been issued with a family book that identifies all members of the family as refugees deserving of protection and assistance. The books are required to gain access to food and medicine in the camps. In the beginning of 1998, UNHCR held a series of meetings with the Bangladeshi government, staff of private agencies, and refugee leaders to introduce the Individual Family File Registration (IFFR) system, a registration system which UNHCR said would improve services for the refugees and more clearly identify persons who would be at particular risk if returned to Burma.44 UNHCR said that the IFFR process did not represent formal status determination, but it nevertheless required heads of families to answer a series of questions relating to possible repatriation. According to UNHCR, the registration, among other things, allows it to more easily identify protection cases. To ensure the reliability of information provided in the IFFR, UNHCR staff announced that each head of family would need to sign or mark a thumbprint on the document. UNHCR announced the dates of registration and counseling over the public address systems of each camp. A special UNHCR team then conducted the registration from May 1998 to May 1999 starting in Kutupalong Camp.

In May 1999, sixteen families in Nayapara Camp refused to complete the form. In their correspondence to relief workers, refugees expressed fears of signing or marking a thumbprint on any document that contained questions about repatriation because they had witnessed the forced return of refugees in the past after those persons had signed other documents. Question number fifteen on the IFFR form asked the refugee "Are you willing to return to your country?" with the option of answering "yes," "no," or "yes, on condition." If the refugee answered "no," the form then asked that the person specify their reason. Although responses on the form did not, in fact, commit the refugee to voluntary repatriation, the group of sixteen families feared their response would be used in future to justify their being pressured to leave.

After UNHCR staff tried several times to meet the families to discuss the problem, the refugees' family books were confiscated at the food distribution point.45 Precisely who took the family books -- UNHCR staff or Bangladeshi camp officials -- is not clear.

Refugees who had completed the IFFR had received a stamp in their family books. When the refugees came to the food distribution point to collect their rations, officials were able quickly to identify those who had failed to complete the form by the absence of a stamp. When questioned about the incident by a Human Rights Watch researcher, a UNHCR official claimed that this was done not as a punitive measure but as a final incentive for the refugees to come and discuss their problems with UNCHR staff.46 UNHCR had predicted that the refugees would immediately come and collect their books, at which point UNHCR could allay their fears about completing the registration form. This was not the case.

Instead, through confiscation of the books and cutting the refugees' formal access to food and medicine, UNHCR found itself caught in a power struggle in which it was perceived as using its control over resources to force the refugees to adhere to its wishes. The refugees then began to complain about the lack of food. With refugees still refusing to meet with UNHCR, the Camp in Charge (CIC), the Bangladeshi administrator of the camp, called the protesting refugees to his office.47 On May 31, when the refugees still refused to cooperate, staff of the CIC beat four of the refugee men so severely that they required medical attention.48

After two more weeks of standoff, the CIC announced that camp authorities would give refugees coupons so that they could obtain their regular rations. However, the refugees refused to collect the coupons or go and receive their rations, insisting that they receive back rations for the weeks they had missed.49 When the CIC subsequently agreed to return their family books, the group of refugees set conditions that included citizenship and democracy in Burma, compensation for all the rations missed and a promise that the CIC and UNHCR would never again confiscate their family books.50 With the arrival in August of a new CIC, and further discussions, four of the refugee families agreed to take back their books unconditionally,51 but in January 2000, twelve families were still refusing to take back their books.

Physical Abuse

In previous reports, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of physical abuse of refugees in the camps, noting that such abuses had been particularly common in the context of repatriation.52 Such abuses continue, Human Rights Watch found in preparing this report, but on a reduced level compared to the past. UNHCR has provided training for camp staff, holding annual protection workshops for Bangladeshi officials - the June 1999 training, for example, included security personnel from the offices of the Deputy Commissioner, Superintendent of Police, Cox's Bazar jail, and the refugee camps. Yet, even with such training abuses have continued to be committed against refugees.

In February 1999, the Camp Magistrate of Kutupalong delivered three strokes of the cane to the thigh of a refugee who had refused to volunteer for repatriation. The man, whom the Burmese government had already cleared to return, refused to go along, claiming to have a case of misappropriation of funds pending against him in Arakan. UNHCR documents reveal that its staff examined the injury and advised the magistrate "not to punish refugees for refusing to volunteer to repatriate." The magistrate was not otherwise disciplined for the incident.

In a second incident, already mentioned above, the Bangladeshi guards at the CIC's office in Nayapara reportedly beat Rohingya family leaders who had refused to sign the IFFR. When the refugees refused to sign, the CIC's staff allegedly caned them on the hands, the soles of their feet, and the torso. Some of them required medical attention as a result.

When UNHCR officials learned of the beatings, they asked the refugees to come and see them, but only four did so. They were medically examined but this revealed only what appeared to be old injuries.53 There was no further investigation and none of the officials responsible was punished.

In another incident in 1999, a witness described a beating in the Nayapara CIC's office:

A friend and I saw one of the Camp in Charge's staff at Nayapara beating a man on his feet when we walked into the radio room. The man's ankles were locked in the leg stocks. When my friend asked the officer what was happening, the officer replied that the man had been accused of robbing people along the road. The camp authorities eventually took the man to jail. He had many bruises and his eye was swollen shut.54

The Bangladeshi government occasionally punishes those authorities found to be abusing refugees, but the punishments usually amount to mild disciplinary measures, such as transfers and, in rare cases, demotions. In 1999, eleven staff/security personnel were subjected to disciplinary action. In October 1999, the government of Bangladesh transferred out of Kutupalong two police who had beaten a refugee. Following repeated complaints, the Bangladeshi government in 1999 demoted the CIC in Kutupalong to deputy administrator and transferred him to Nayapara. The officer was regularly seen beating and physically punishing refugees during his tenure as CIC.

UNHCR has intervened during, but most often after, physical abuse. The Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), the senior Bangladeshi official responsible for administration and implementation of refugee policy, has also voiced concern about beatings in the camps.55 New CICs took over in each of the two camps in August 1999 replacing those under which abuses of refugees had previously been reported.

44 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Country Office, Dhaka, August 13, 1999.

45 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Country Office, Dhaka, August 13, 1999.

46 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Country Office, Dhaka, August 13, 1999.

47 The Camp in Charge is the Bangladeshi government's administrative head of the refugee camps. In discussions with Human Rights Watch, staff of the UNHCR office in Dhaka claimed that UNHCR at this time handed over the family books to the CIC.

48 This case is described in greater detail below under the heading Physical Abuse.

49 Human Rights Watch discussion with aid worker, Dhaka, August 6, 1999; Discussion with the Office of the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, Cox's Bazar, August 11, 1999. During this time the group of absconding refugees were reportedly receiving food from other refugees.

50 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR, RRRC, and relief agencies, Dhaka and Cox's Bazar, August 1999.

51 Human Rights Watch communication with UNHCR Country Office, November 25, 1999.

52 See Human Rights Watch, "Bangladesh: Abuse of Burmese Refugees from Arakan."

53 Human Rights Watch communication with UNHCR Country Office, November 25, 1999.

54 Human Rights Watch interview, Dhaka, August 6, 1999.

55 Human Rights Watch discussion with UNHCR Sub-Office, Cox's Bazar, August 10, 1999; Human Rights Watch discussion with the RRRC Office, Cox's Bazar, August 10, 1999.

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