“Of course I want to go back home,” an elderly woman, a Rohingya refugee from Burma, told me last year when I visited a camp in Teknaf, near the Bangladesh-Burma border. “But it’s not safe there, so I fear I will be buried in this foreign land.”
It has become even less safe now. Scores have been killed and over 1200 buildings destroyed in five villages in the predominately ethnic Rohingya areas near Maungdaw township during renewed violence since the October 9 attacks on border guard posts in Burma’s Rakhine State. There are allegations of serious abuses by Burma’s security forces, including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, and rape. Much of the impacted areas remain sealed to international aid organizations. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence. Many Rohingya are fleeing, some getting on boats or walking or swimming to seek sanctuary in bordering Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government, however, says it doesn’t want more Rohingya refugees. While there are more than 30,000 registered refugees in the country, authorities estimate that 300,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya are also already living in Bangladesh. The government has ordered the border guards, navy, and coast guard to secure sea and land access. “Rohingya infiltration is an uncomfortable issue for Bangladesh,” said Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan. “We don’t want illegal Rohingya immigration.” Several hundred have already been pushed back. Those that have managed to cross have told the media they are escaping terrible abuses.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pressed the Burmese government to provide immediate humanitarian access to provide aid to the Rohingya in accordance with international law and has asked Bangladesh to keep its border open to any civilians fleeing the violence.
Bangladesh has long argued that it cannot afford to host the Rohingya, and it is of course imperative for the international community to provide necessary assistance. However, under customary international law, Bangladesh may not summarily reject at the border asylum seekers fleeing widespread human rights abuses or generalized violence. It is obligated to allow them to enter the country and seek protection.
At the Teknaf camp, the Rohingya survive in abysmal conditions at barely subsistence levels. The condition of those unregistered is worse say local activists – they seldom approach the police to report crimes or visit hospitals, fearing that they will discovered, arrested, and possibly returned. Yet, more keep coming because the situation back home is a serious risk to their lives and liberty. As the elderly woman told me, “No one wants us. It feels like a sin to have been born.”