The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called on Bangladesh to open its borders to Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar.
“UNHCR continues to consider that until public order and security are restored for all communities in [Myanmar’s] Rakhine State, states should not forcibly return to Myanmar persons originating from Rakhine State,” Pia Paguio, senior protection officer and officer-in-charge of UNHCR in Dhaka, told IRIN on 29 October. “We thus continue to appeal to the government of Bangladesh to open its borders to those in need of a safe haven.”
Under Burmese law, the Rohingya - a persecuted minority of 800,000 - are de jure stateless in Myanmar and face constant persecution, while in Muslim-majority Bangladesh they are viewed as illegal migrants.
Bangladesh has repeatedly said it will not accept any Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic violence in neighbouring Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Myanmar over the past three decades, the vast majority to Bangladesh in the 1990s.
According to Burmese government estimates released on 29 October, more than 28,000 residents have been displaced in Rakhine State following a week of deadly sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine which began on 21 October.
At least 76 people were killed, and more than 4,600 houses and several religious buildings destroyed, in the unrest, the UN reported on 29 October. There was violence in the Rakhine State townships of Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung.
Tensions had increased after monks, and women’s and youth groups organized anti-Rohingya and anti-Organization of Islamic Cooperation demonstrations in Sittwe, Mandalay and Yangon, the report said.
The latest displacement comes on top of the 75,000, mostly Rohingya Muslims, currently displaced after communal violence erupted in June following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men in May.
At least 78 people were killed and close to 5,000 homes and buildings were destroyed in that incident.
Most of the displaced are currently in nine overcrowded camps in Sittwe, separated from the rest of the community due to security concerns.
There are more than 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh today, including more than 30,000 documented refugees living in two government-run camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara) within 2km of the Burmese border, according to UNHCR.
UNHCR has not been permitted to register newly arriving Rohingya since mid-1992. Most Rohingya are living in villages and towns in the Cox’s Bazar area and receive little to no assistance as the agency is only allowed to assist those who are documented.
UNHCR does not have access to the 193km Myanmar-Bangladesh border to verify the situation of persons arriving from Rakhine State. Moreover, Bangladesh's closed border policy remains in effect.
Despite repeated advocacy efforts by UNHCR, civil society and the diplomatic community, Dhaka, fearing a major influx, closed its borders to persons fleeing communal violence Myanmar in June.
Those who did manage to make it across the border were rounded up and sent back to Myanmar. However, there are no reliable figures on the number of arrivals and the number refouled.
Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.
“UNHCR reiterates its readiness to provide protection and assistance to the governments and the people of Bangladesh and Myanmar in addressing this evolving humanitarian situation,” said Paguino.