Opinion: Stateless and starving in Bangladesh

COX'S BAZAAR, Bangladesh and CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Government officials in Bangladesh are preventing charities from delivering food to tens of thousands of starving Burmese refugees living in its southeastern corner, across the river from Burma (*Myanmar).

When a government does something so outrageous in flagrant violation of international law, logical questions to ask are: Why is it doing this? And what might change its course?

The government of Bangladesh justifies its decision to deny aid to most Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic minority group despised on both sides of the border — by saying they are economic migrants who left Burma in search of work. They therefore lack legal protections afforded to refugees, it says, and must be forcibly returned to Burma as soon as possible.

To call the Rohingya economic migrants reflects a willful refusal to recognize the harsh circumstances forcing them to flee Burma, where most of them face systematic persecution by Burmese authorities. They are disenfranchised, subjected to forced labor and relocation, and in some cases raped, tortured or even murdered.

That the Rohingya are also limited to menial jobs in Burma, where per capita income is even lower than in Bangladesh, does not make them “economic migrants” any more than were the Jews who fled Hitler’s Germany.

The distinction is important because a well-founded fear of persecution entitles asylum applicants to seek refugee status from a host government, and therefore gain protection by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and aid from other U.N. agencies. Some 28,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh have been granted such status, and are being cared for in compliance with international standards.

Yet upward of 200,000 other Rohingya in Bangladesh are denied such protection, because the Bangladeshi government stopped granting them refugee status in 1993. Many of them live in and around the town of Cox’s Bazar, but the government has forced some 40,000 of them into two makeshift camps where they are denied access to food and most other forms of aid.

When my colleague, Dr. Parveen Parmar, and I conducted a rapid health survey in the squalid camps in February, we observed that nearly one child in five was acutely malnourished, and we interviewed several people on the brink of starvation who had not eaten for two or more days.

Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s representative to the U.N., has denied that his government is withholding aid from the Rohingya. Officials are simply ensuring that no aid is coming from terrorist groups, he said.

“Bangladesh always stands by human rights,” Momen declared. “We are an impoverished country, and in spite of that, we tried to help [the Rohingya] as best we can.”

To what kind of help does he refer? Rohingya men who leave the camps to try to find work are now routinely arrested, beaten and forced back to Burma. Rohingya women are barred from receiving food from any aid group, and struggle to keep themselves and their children alive on what little food they can beg, borrow or scrounge.

But lest even this degree of misery be deemed insufficient to dissuade an influx of additional Rohingya from crossing into Bangladesh, the government has added a new disincentive. People we spoke with during our recent trip describe a systematic campaign by local officials to whip up public sentiment against Rohingya outside the camps. Their Bangladeshi neighbors are encouraged to identify them to authorities, who can then arrest them and expel them from the country.

As the world saw in Rwanda, such government-sponsored hate campaigns sometimes spiral out of control, becoming a precursor to a bloodbath. In this context, Momen’s assurance that “We are trying our best to keep [the Rohingya] in good humor” seems almost willfully obtuse.

Confronted with this growing crisis, UNHCR should exert its global mandate to protect the Rohingya whom the government of Bangladesh has refused to register as refugees. UNHCR should press the government to stop arresting Rohingya and forcing them back to Burma, and to permit aid groups to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance immediately.

The U.S. State Department should urge Bangladesh to cease its campaign of persecution and forced repatriation against the Rohingya.

And American citizens can express to Congress and the Obama administration their views that it is unconscionable for tens of thousands of people to be condemned to die of starvation or disease because they are caught between two poor countries that do not want to help them.

*The writer uses Burma, rather than Myanmar, because it is the form preferred by the leaders of Burma’s pro-democracy movement.

Richard Sollom is Director of Research and Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, Mass., where he directs public health research and human rights investigations in areas of armed conflict.