Table Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map
Human Rights Watch - Home Page


Since 1991, Bangladesh has been the main country of refuge for members of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma's Arakan State, many thousands of whom have fled gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese government. In 1991-92 alone, discrimination, violence and the imposition of forced labor practices by Burmese authorities triggered an exodus of some 250,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh. Most of these refugees returned between 1993 and 1997 under a repatriation program arranged through the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The future of 22,000 Rohingya who remain in refugee camps in Bangladesh, however, remains unclear. Donor countries, frustrated by the lack of progress in finally resettling these remaining refugees, have reduced the level of support available to them. Meanwhile, continuing discrimination against, attacks upon, and other widespread violations of the rights of Rohingya in Burma have led to new refugee outflows into Bangladesh. More than 100,000 Rohingya, who have not been formally documented as refugees, now live in Bangladesh outside the refugee camps. Their situation too remains precarious.

This report describes the key obstacles which have up to now prevented the satisfactory resolution of this major refugee problem, with particular attention to completion of the agreed repatriation program. The primary obstacles are to be found on the Burmese side of the border. Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which replaced the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), persists in its policy of denying Burmese citizenship rights to most Rohingya on the grounds that they comprise an alien population on Burmese soil. As a direct consequence, Rohingya are treated as aliens in their own country, and are being subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement, arbitrary taxation, and extortion by local officials. Rohingya villagers also continue to be required to undertake forced labor by local Burmese officials, who sometimes threaten to have them killed if they refuse to comply.

UNHCR has had a permanent presence in Arakan state since 1994 and has assisted many Rohingya returnees, but it has limited funding and has been unable, in practice, to provide adequate protection to many of the refugees who have returned to Burma. It was also initially hampered by Burmese government restrictions on access to certain areas and constant surveillance of its projects. UNHCR is now in the process of handing over responsibility for assisting the reintegration of Rohingya to the U.N. Integrated Programme (UN-IP), an umbrella group of other U.N. agencies concerned with development in Burma, and is considering reducing its own presence. If this occurs, it likely will increase the vulnerability of the Rohingya to further abuse. While some of the agencies involved in the UN-IP have expressed interest in more fully integrating human rights considerations into their policies and programs, they lack both the mandate and the expertise necessary to ensure adequate protection for the Rohingya.

In Bangladesh, the situation in the refugee camps has been at virtual impasse since a combination of unrest within the camps and pressure from the Burmese government led to the temporary suspension of the repatriation program in mid-1997. It then formally recommenced in November 1998 but under such restrictive conditions imposed by the Burmese authorities that very few of the remaining Rohingya who wanted to repatriate were able to return to Burma. Indeed, only 799 Rohingya were repatriated from the camps between November 1998 and October 1999 while, in the same period, the total number in the camps was swelled by the births of almost 1200 children. In early 2000, however, the Burmese government has lifted some of the restrictions in force since November 1998 and promised to remove the others, opening up the possibility of an increase in the flow of returns. If this does occur, close and continuing involvement by UNHCR will be essential in ensuring that any such returns are truly voluntary and that returning Rohingya are not subject to renewed persecution in Burma.

Despite various improvements, abuses in the refugee camps in Bangladesh have also continued. In the past, administrators at the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps used coercion to induce refugees to return to Burma. More recently, in May 1999, in an effort to complete a census registration of all families in the two camps, authorities confiscated the "family books" of a number of refugee families who refused to cooperate. Family books are the only legal form of identification for Rohingya in the camps and are essential for obtaining support, including food and medical care. The families had apparently refused to fill out registration forms on the mistaken fear that doing so would increase the likelihood that they would be forcibly repatriated. The authorities' response exacerbated the mistrust. Refugees who fail to abide by camp regulations also continue to be subject to beatings and other forms of physical abuse, although camp administrators have begun in some cases to take disciplinary action against the responsible camp staff.

The Rohingya who remain in refugee camps represent a minority of the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and, due in large part to continuing abuses against Rohingya in Arakan, there are frequent new arrivals. In all, according to Bangladeshi authorities and NGOs, more than 100,000 Rohingya are currently estimated to be living in Burma outside refugee camps. Virtually all of them have no formal documentation as refugees and, therefore, are particularly vulnerable to the possibility of being forcibly returned to Burma. They are to be found in an area that stretches from Teknaf in the far south to the port city of Chittagong and the Bandarban region, and many also are believed to have made their way to the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. Thousands of other Rohingya have made their way, or been trafficked, to countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The principal cause of the continuing Rohingya refugee crisis is the Burmese government's abusive and discriminatory attitude towards this particular ethnic and religious minority. So long as Rohingya in Arakan continue to be the target of systematic human rights violations, further refugee flows out of Burma will occur. Given these circumstances, Human Rights Watch is greatly concerned about the prospect of a reduced UNHCR presence in Arakan State. In our view, it is essential under present circumstances that UNHCR should maintain a strong and active presence in Arakan to ensure that Rohingya refugees are afforded all possible protection of their rights, in accordance with international law. It should receive the necessary financial and political support from donor governments to facilitate such a presence. Further, the international community, and particularly the donor countries, must exert and sustain all possible pressure on the Burmese regime to comply with its obligations under international law to respect fully the rights of Rohingya and all other inhabitants of Burma.

The main focus needs to be on ending oppression and improving conditions for Rohingya in Arakan, but this should not minimize the need for steps to be taken in the interim to improve conditions for Rohingya who remain in refugee camps or who are otherwise living as undocumented refugees in Bangladesh. Limited resources should not be a pretext for sweeping the problem under the rug. The Burmese government's January 2000 decision to lift all major restrictions on Rohingya may well lead a number of Rohingya to opt for repatriation and thus to a reduction in the number remaining in the camps. Thousands of others in the camps, however, are believed to be unwilling to return to Burma and should not be forced to do so. The Bangladeshi government and the international community have an obligation to take the lead in efforts to find a durable solution to their plight and that of other Rohingya in Bangladesh who have reason to fear return to Burma.


To the Government of Burma

· The State Peace and Development Council should immediately amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law to remove the burdensome standard of proof for attaining citizenship. The government should grant the Rohingya full citizenship and accompanying rights. The SPDC should furthermore sign and ratify the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and fulfill its international obligation to prevent statelessness.

· Burmese authorities should also address the other fundamental human rights problems which have caused the Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Specifically, it should abolish the practice of forced labor in compliance with the 1930 ILO Convention on Forced Labour which the government signed in 1955. Towards this end, as recommended by the International Labour Organization, the government should amend or appeal the sections of the Village and Towns Acts that legally sanction the conscription of labor.

· The rights of the child should be especially protected, in accordance with the government's commitment to children's rights through its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. In particular, all children should be granted Burmese nationality, including those born in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Children must not be forced to work, under any circumstances, and the government should not discriminate against Muslim children in its provision of education benefits.

· The Burmese government must ensure that all refugees are able to exercise their right to return and must guarantee their full reintegration with full respect for their human rights.

To the Government of Bangladesh

· The Bangladeshi government should state unequivocally that it will permit individuals to seek asylum and should establish a formal mechanism through which UNHCR can gain consistent access to detained Rohingya and any other undocumented Rohingya who wish to make asylum claims. Persons found to have a well-founded fear of persecution in Burma should be provided international protection in Bangladesh. Given the current conditions in Arakan, there should be no summary deportation of undocumented Rohingya.

· The Bangladeshi government must seek durable solutions to the crisis. Where appropriate, the government should facilitate voluntary repatriation; it should also examine the feasibility of local integration for all or a portion of the remaining Rohingya in the camps or provide them temporary residence in Bangladesh until the conditions under which the Rohingya were recognized as refugees cease to exist.

· The Bangladeshi Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, with the cooperation of UNHCR, must enact a proactive strategy to prevent the beating of refugees by administrative staff in the camps. UNHCR training should be mandatory for all camp authorities, preferably prior to assuming any duties in the camps. Guards or other staff found to be abusing refugees should be transferred out of the camps immediately and prosecuted under Bangladeshi law.

· The Bangladeshi government should ensure that UNHCR and NGOs receive full access to the refugees. Access is especially critical during repatriation so that voluntariness can be confirmed.

· The Bangladeshi government should demonstrate its commitment to international human rights standards and become a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol as well as the 1954 and 1961 conventions relating to the reduction and prevention of statelessness.

To the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

· UNHCR should continue to monitor and facilitate the repatriation of those refugees who wish to return. Refugees should be provided with full and impartial information about conditions in Arakan State prior to their return and UNHCR should insist that the Burmese government guarantee the full reintegration of all returnees and protection of their rights.

· Under no circumstances should assistance be withheld as a method of camp management. No party should use denial of access to food or medical services as leverage against refugee families.

· UNHCR should reassess its classification of undocumented Rohingya as "economic migrants" and produce a set of transparent criteria in accordance with international refugee legal standards to assess Rohingya claims to refugee status.

· UNHCR should seek durable solutions for the Rohingya refugees. It should in particular activate its mandate on statelessness under Article 11 of the 1961 Convention on the Prevention of Statelessness and subsequent UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusions and UN General Assembly resolutions and continue to offer technical assistance and guidance to the Burmese government on its national laws or measures to avoid and reduce statelessness as a long term solution to one of the fundamental causes of displacement.

· UNHCR should commit itself to a strong protection monitoring role in Burma. The transfer of development activities to the United Nations Integrated Program (UN-IP) in Burma should allow UNHCR staff to dedicate their time to protection monitoring and intervention. Donors must likewise commit to funding a strong UNHCR protection role in both Bangladesh and Burma.

To Donors and the International Community

· Donor governments should continue to engage the Bangladeshi government in efforts to explore the potential of local integration or temporary residence for a portion of the remaining Rohingya population. In the spirit of burden sharing, donors should also offer to commit to financially supporting a transition from assisted camps to local integration. The international community should also explore and provide third country resettlement possibilities as a durable solution for Rohingya refugees, especially for those persons who are either unable or unwilling to return to Burma and for whom long-term protection is not available in Bangladesh. For those persons who are unable to receive permanent protection in Bangladesh, the international community must give due consideration to resettlement in a third country.

· The international community must step up efforts to ensure that conditions are created under which the Rohingya can return to Burma in safety and with dignity and with human rights guarantees. The international community should coordinate their efforts to press the Burmese government to implement fully the April 2000 resolution of the UN Commission for Human Rights which calls on the Burmese government to address the causes of displacement.

Table Of ContentsNext Page