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Opinion: Stateless and starving in Bangladesh

The Rohingya are a poor minority stuck between two countries that won't help them. Who will come to their aid?

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.