Ending a Cycle of Exodus?

Vol. 8, No. 9 (C), September 1996



The title of this report is taken from a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report of June 1995 on the repatriation of over 200,000 Burmese refugees, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, from Bangladesh to their home state of Arakan in northern Burma. The repatriation is being held up as a success story by the UNHCR in speeches of senior officials as well as in publications, including its annual report, State of the World’s Refugees 1995. For the UNHCR, the return of so many refugees by early 1996, most of whom had left Burma in 1991 and 1992, was a vindication of its shift from providing refugee relief to promoting voluntary repatriation as the most durable solution to refugee problems.

But the story of the Rohingyas was not over: the cycle of exodus has not ended. On April 20, 1996, fifteen Burmese Muslims, part of a group of 150 who were seeking asylum in Bangladesh, drowned in the Naf river as they were being towed back to Burma by the Bangladesh Border Rifles, a branch of the Bangladesh army. All fifteen were women and young children. This incident brought much-needed attention to the plight of some 5,000 new asylum seekers who had entered Bangladesh since the end of February 1996. By the end of May their number had risen to an estimated 10,000. The Bangladesh government had refused UNHCR access to the new arrivals and was intent on sending them all back. Its security forces arrested 254 refugees without permitting them to apply for asylum and forcibly returned an estimated 200 others in violation of international standards.

These new arrivals came to Bangladesh at a time when the UNHCR was attempting to wind up the repatriation of the Rohingya who had fled violent abuse by the Burmese military in 1991 and 1992. As one journalist put it, “The influx is something of an embarrassment for the UNHCR...[who] fear that any move to help the newcomers would spur others to follow.” Having conducted only a handful of individual interviews, the UNHCR in Dhaka publicly stated that all the new arrivals were “economic migrants” who were escaping poverty not persecution, and stepped up efforts inside Arakan State to ensure that those planning to leave would not do so.

The 1996 exodus from Burma raises several important questions about the UNHCR’s repatriation operation from Bangladesh and about the promotion of “voluntary” return to countries with particularly abusive governments. Rohingyas are not the only refugees to have left Burma since its military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), came to power after a series of popular uprisings in 1988. In June 1996 the 95,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand were joined by 2,300 new arrivals from Karenni state and at least 8,000 people from Shan state, all of whom came from areas where SLORC was forcibly relocating villages to bring them more directly under government control. The Shan, unlike other Burmese minorities, have been prevented from entering Thailand and seeking asylum, as is their right under international law. In the absence of refugee determination procedures and camps for new arrivals, those forced to flee who have managed to evade border patrols have sought low-paid jobs in the construction industry and agriculture, swelling the ranks of the estimated 600,000 Burmese illegal migrants in Thailand.

At the same time, inside Burma, the government’s attitude towards political dissent was hardening, as revealed by the arrest at the end of May 1996 of 262 members of the political opposition, most of whom were elected members of parliament. While most have since been released, many of them have been harassed and threatened with the loss of their jobs or worse if they did not resign their seats and leave the National League for Democracy (NLD). By July 1, seventeen had resigned. Human rights abuses, in the form of summary executions of suspected rebels, forced labor, arbitrary arrest, cruel and inhumane treatment, violations of the laws of war, and a total denial of freedom of speech and association continue, despite Burma’s obligations under international law. In 1955 Burma signed the 1930 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on Forced Labor; in 1991, it ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in 1992 the Geneva Conventions, yet it continues to flout their provisions. The SLORC has given limited cooperation to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, appointed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, who has visited the country every year since 1992, but it has failed to implement any of the rapporteur’s recommendations or any of the successive resolutions of either the commission or the U.N. General Assembly.

Given such an abusive and intransigent government, what guarantees can be put in place to ensure the long-term safety of returning refugees? What more can the international community do to see that the government accepts its responsibility for the protection of human rights, especially the rights of ethnic and religious minorities who make up 40 percent of the population and 99 percent of refugees? In this context, is UNHCR’s promotion of voluntary repatriation and its shift of emphasis away from the “right to seek asylum” towards the “right to remain” in the country of residence either appropriate or sustainable? In its 1994 Oslo Declaration, UNHCR itself acknowledged concerns:

There was a general agreement that voluntary repatriation is the preferred and best solution to the refugee problem. However, it was noted that in some instances UNHCR has placed too much emphasis on early return to countries of origin which has resulted in return movements to less than favourable conditions.

The situation in Arakan was certainly less than favorable, despite the presence since January 1994 of a UNHCR office there to monitor the situation of returnees.

This report, based on four visits to the region and extensive interviews over the past four years with individuals involved in the repatriation and reintegration program, examines the issue of protecting refugees who return to an abusive environment, using the Muslims from Arakan state as an example. In setting the context for their flight and return, the report examines the claims of the Rohingyas to be a distinct ethnic minority within Burma and the efforts of the government since 1962 to deny them citizenship and all accompanying rights and to occasionally force them out as illegal immigrants.

The report then analyzes the attempts at repatriating Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh who fled in 1991. In the first forced repatriation, between September 1992 and the end of 1993, UNHCR was not present in Burma and had no agreement with the Burmese government to provide assistance to returnees. Even more seriously, while the agency was present in the camps in Bangladesh, it could not prevent serious abuses, including beatings and the denial of food rations by camp authorities directed at forcing the refugees back to Burma. The vast majority of the 50,000 refugees who returned to Burma did so involuntarily, and three years later the UNHCR has not been able to trace them. There undoubtedly was concern that without full UNHCR participation, the repatriation could have turned into a replay of the 1978 repatriation of Burmese Muslims from Bangladesh, worked out bilaterally between the two countries concerned, in which over 12,000 refugees starved to death as the Bangladesh government reduced food rations in the camps in order to force them back. Given that worst case scenario, at least one journalist suggested that the principle of voluntary return became “a euphemism for no real alternative.’”

The second repatriation effort took place after the UNHCR had established a limited field presence in Arakan state in 1994. It began promoting mass repatriation on the grounds that the situation in Arakan was now conducive to return, and it gave up the hard-won right to interview each refugee individually to ensure that she or he was returning voluntarily. The report examines the extent to which the refugees have been able to make fully informed decisions about their return, based on knowledge of their right to request continued asylum and objective information about conditions in Arakan. It also looks at various elements of the reintegration program and the consequences of the UNHCR having as its implementing agency or government partner an ostensibly civilian agency that in some parts of Arakan is under the direct command of the military.

Finally, the report documents a pattern of continuing discrimination and other abuses against the Muslims in Arakan state, from denial of citizenship to forced relocations and forced labor, leading to a new influx of refugees as described above.

Human Rights Watch/Asia concludes that while it applauds UNHCR’s efforts at an international level to work toward preventing refugee outflows by promoting human rights, UNHCR has in many cases avoided addressing human rights concerns in Arakan, and its policy of promoting mass repatriation there must be thoroughly evaluated. In particular, the UNHCR must ensure that it does not neglect its responsibilities to the refugees in a situation where there is a conflict of interest: where the need to publicize and advocate against continued abuses takes second place to the need to maintain good relations with both the country of origin and the host country. In the case of the Rohingyas, the UNHCR policy since June 1996 of discouraging and sometimes assisting the government to prevent possible asylum seekers from leaving Burma is a cause for great concern. In the final analysis, the refugee problem will not be solved until and unless the Rohingyas are recognized as citizens by the Burmese government and granted the rights they are currently denied. They will remain a vulnerable group, always ready to flee if the alternative is to suffer further abuse.




As a matter of urgency, the SLORC should immediately amend or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Act “to abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities” as described by the U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma, and grant the Muslims of Arakan State 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 State and across Burma in compliance with the 1930 ILO Convention on Forced Labor which the government signed in 1955.

The rights of children should be especially protected, in accordance with the government’s commitment to children’s rights as indicated by its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. In particular, all children should be granted their right to nationality, including the 20,000 children 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 health and education benefits.

The government should permit the new Special Rapporteur to Burma to visit the area on his mission later this year, and he should be guaranteed free and confidential access to residents.

Human rights abuses in Arakan State are a reflection of the situation all over the country, and the government of Burma should implement the main human rights components of 1995 U.N. General Assembly Resolution and the 1996 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.


The newly-elected government of Sheikh Hassina should state unequivocally that it will permit individuals to seek asylum. In doing so, it should provide objective information to refugees on which they can make an informed decision to return and should ensure that refugees are fully aware of their right to protection from refoulement if they can establish a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned. Bangladesh is obliged to give all asylum seekers, including all new arrivals, the opportunity to claim refugee status.

The Bangladesh government should also 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. However, even without having become a party to the Convention, Bangladesh should fulfill its obligations with regard to the principle of non-refoulement which is customary international law.


The UNHCR should conduct a thorough evaluation of its policy of promoting mass repatriation to Arakan State at a time when the situation there has not substantially improved. Under current circumstances, if the conditions in Arakan State deteriorate, UNHCR should not tolerate violations by the Bangladesh government of the right to seek asylum or the principle of non-refoulement. In addition, if or when the UNHCR finds that it cannot effectively protect the rights of returnees in northern Arakan State, the office should not assist in preventing potential authentic refugees from seeking asylum in Bangladesh. In doing so, the UNHCR would become complicit in the human rights violations and in addition would fail to protect authentic refugees by denying them refugee status and encouraging their refoulement.

The UNHCR should reassess its classification of Burmese Muslims newly arrived in Bangladesh from Burma as “economic migrants” and seek assurances from Bangladesh that they will not be returned against their will without having had the opportunity to apply for refugee status.

The UNHCR should put into practice the recommendations from the 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 1995 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.

The UNHCR should be more open with information to nongovernmental partners to ensure that mutual trust is maintained. There should be a regular exchange of staff between offices in Cox’s Bazaar and Arakan, so that all staff are fully aware of conditions on both sides.


ASEAN should make Burma’s full membership in ASEAN conditional on the above steps being taken by the SLORC and the implementation of other key human rights provisions in the U.N. General Assembly resolution of December 1995.

ASEAN governments should conduct a fact-finding mission to both Arakan and the refugee camps in Bangladesh to assess the condition of Rohingya refugees and make recommendations to the Burmese government to ensure that the rights of the Muslim minority are respected.






The first stage, September 1992 to January 1994
Mass repatriation, July 1994 - December 1995


Citizenship Legislation and Identity Cards
International Law and the 1982 Citizenship Act
Current Status of Returnees
Forced Labor
Land Ownership and Arbitrary Taxation
Forced Relocations
Model Villages
Freedom of Movement


Human Rights Watch      September 1996      Vol. 8, No. 9 (C)

To order the full text of this report click HERE.

For more Human Rights Watch reports on Burma click HERE.

To return to the list of 1996 publications click HERE.

Or, to return to the index of Human Rights Watch reports click HERE.

Back Button