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The governments of Burma and Bangladesh should take urgent steps to provide protection for thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees who have fled gross human rights abuses in Burma's Arakan state, Human Rights Watch said today. There are currently thousands of Rohingya in eastern Bangladesh.

Burma must improve the treatment of the Rohingya, who are abused and treated like aliens in their own country," said Gary Risser, refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "That's why refugees keep coming to Bangladesh, and thousands of them are afraid to go back."

In a new 29-page report, "Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution," Human Rights Watch describes the key obstacles to the satisfactory resolution of the Rohingya refugee problem. Any resolution must comply with international human rights standards, including those guaranteeing protection of the rights of refugees.

In 1991 and 1992, some 250,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh, and though most of these returned under a repatriation program arranged by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 22,000 remain in camps. More than 100,000 additional Rohingya who have entered the country since 1991 now live in precarious circumstances in Bangladesh outside the camps with no formal documentation as refugees. Though conditions in the camps have reportedly improved, refugees living there continue to suffer abuses, including beatings and other forms of physical abuse, and in the past have been coerced by camp administrators trying to force their return to Burma.

The report updates the situation of the Rohingya in northern Arakan and illustrates how they continue to face discrimination, forced labor, and arbitrary confiscation of their property by the Burmese government. The government also refuses to consider recognizing the Rohingya's claim to Burmese citizenship. Lack of citizenship restricts the freedom of the Rohingya to travel outside and within the country, to partake in public service, or pursue some types of higher education.

Many of the 100,000 or more undocumented Rohingya in Bangladesh may well have a well-founded fear of persecution in Burma and should be provided protection as refugees. But the Bangladeshi government counts these Rohingya as illegal economic migrants. Human Rights Watch urges the establishment of a mechanism through which UNHCR could gain consistent access to Rohingya detained as prohibited migrants 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. Under the current climate in Burma, there should be no summary deportation of Rohingya," said Risser. "UNHCR must continue to provide a strong protection monitoring role both in the camps in Bangladesh and in Arakan state in Burma where the Rohingya voluntarily return."

Over the past two years, UNHCR has been in the process of handing over responsibility for assisting the reintegration of returning refugees in northern Arakan to a broader U.N. umbrella group of development-oriented agencies. Human Rights Watch strongly opposes the handover, believing that the lack of a UNHCR presence in the field could increase the risk of leaving the Rohingya unprotected against government abuses. UNHCR is the only U.N. organization with the mandate and expertise to protect the Rohingya. Instead of a reduction in the UNHCR presence, its protection role should be strengthened.

Rohingya repatriation formally recommenced in November 1998 after over a year's suspension, but under restrictive conditions set out by the Burmese government. One of the main conditions was the set quota of no more than fifty persons to return per week. In practice, this quota was rarely reached in the first year. As a result, the birth rate in the camps often exceeded the number of returnees, spelling a net growth in the population in the camps. The Burmese government has furthermore stated that it would only consider the return of the approximately 7,000 Rohingya refugees who had been previously cleared for repatriation prior to the 1997 suspension of returns. These restrictions would effectively deny the remaining 15,000 Rohingya of their right to return, should they wish to pursue it.

Human Rights Watch outlined recommendations to the governments of Burma and Bangladesh for durable solutions of the refugee crisis, including repatriation to Burma, local integration in Bangladesh, and resettlement in a third country. Some combination of these options is likely to be needed. The international monitoring group also urged Bangladesh's donors to make commitments of financial support to help pay for the local integration of the remaining Rohingya population.

But a lasting solution also requires increased pressure by the international community on the Burmese government to end serious abuses in Arakan state so that the Rohingya can return to Burma in safety and with full human rights guarantees.

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