The government of Bangladesh has ordered three international NGOs to stop providing services to Muslim ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, fearing such services will encourage an “influx” of people fleeing recent sectarian violence in the neighbouring country.
The international medical relief agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger, and the UK-based Muslim Aid were recently ordered to suspend their services in Cox’s Bazar, a district bordering Myanmar, where tens of thousands of mostly undocumented Rohingya refugees live in makeshift camps clustered around two government-run ones.
Calling the influx argument “groundless”, Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya, told IRIN: “Basic health-related services are not a pull-factor, and no increase of population has been observed in these two camps.”
A recent flare-up in sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State sent more Rohingyas across the border, prompting Bangladesh’s prime minister to declare in June that the country could not take in any more Rohingyas due to already strained services and a dense population.
The Rohingya are not legally recognized in Myanmar, where they have long struggled with a lack of access to healthcare, social services and education.
The Bangladeshi authorities estimate that there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in the country, of whom some 30,000 are officially registered in the government-run camps.
MSF confirmed that they had been ordered to stop services at its Kutupalong clinic in Cox’s Bazar, where they provided outpatient and inpatient care, maternity services, family planning, vaccinations and mental healthcare to 55,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi patients in 2011.
MSF spokesman Diderik van Halsema declined to comment on the ban, saying the agency is in discussion with the government and is “keen not to jeopardize ongoing talks”.
Lewa said the ban is hitting an area with an already critical humanitarian situation. “Any expulsion would make conditions worse, especially during the monsoon, and not just for refugees but also for the local population, which these agencies also serve.”
Some 47 people died in recent flooding in Cox’s Bazar, a disaster-prone district that is among the country’s poorest, where one in every five children under the age of five is malnourished, according to the UN World Food Programme.
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), expressed the agency’s concern, saying, “We urge the government of Bangladesh to reconsider this request [to halt services].”