BANGKOK/DELHI (AlertNet) – Tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face abuse, starvation and detention in a "silent crisis" that could lead to a humanitarian emergency if the authorities do not do more to protect them, a report by Refugees International (RI) said.
The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority from Rakhine State in the west of the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Rights groups say they face some of the worst discrimination in the world and accuse the Myanmar government of denying them citizenship, free movement, education and employment.
But those who have fled to Bangladesh also face discrimination - they receive limited aid and are subject to arrest, extortion and detention, the report Bangladesh: The Silent Crisis, released on Tuesday by U.S.-based rights group RI, said.
"The situation is desperate for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh," Lynn Yoshikawa, a co-author of the report who recently returned from visiting the refugee camps, said.
"They live in squalor and are forced to suffer a litany of abuses because the government doesn't recognise them as refugees."
Bangladesh's Rohingya repatriate commissioner, Firoz Salahuddin, dismissed RI's claims. He told AlertNet the report was "disappointing" and the Rohingyas were in fact being treated well.
The Bangladesh government classes the majority of Rohingyas as illegal migrants and says they should return to Myanmar. Last year the authorities forcibly evicted thousands from a makeshift camp, prompting an outcry from aid and rights groups.
Since then, Bangladesh has increased restrictions on aid agencies working with the refugees, the RI report said.
Despite worrying levels of malnutrition at the largest makeshift camp housing about 20,000 people, "the government has denied permits for aid agencies to assist unregistered refugees and host communities," RI said. "Shelters are falling apart and are unlikely to resist the upcoming monsoons."
RI is calling on donor governments, particularly Australia, Canada, the United States and Britain, to help the Rohingyas by providing humanitarian aid, a new country to live in and funding. The rights group also wants donors to encourage Bangladesh to set up a system to register vulnerable and undocumented refugees to protect them.
"The plight of the Rohingyas has been neglected for decades by the international community and Burma (Myanmar's former name) advocacy groups, despite the scale and severity of abuses they face both as stateless Burmese minorities and refugees," Yoshikawa told AlertNet.
UNREGISTERED AND UNPROTECTED
According to Bangladeshi officials, there are almost 25,000 Rohingyas who have refugee status and who receive food rations and other aid from the United Nations. They are housed in two camps in the country's southeastern Cox's Bazaar region.
Officials say there are also between 200,000 and 300,000 Rohingyas who they term as "undocumented" - with no refugee status and no legal rights - who are living outside the camps, dependent on local Bangladeshis for work and sustenance.
Of this group, the lucky ones are in local villages while others end up in unofficial settlements where mud huts covered in plastic sheets and tree branches provide poor protection from monsoon rains that cause mudslides and expose them to waterborne diseases.
Unregistered Rohingyas have for decades lacked "basic protection from violence, exploitation and arrest" in Bangladesh, Yoshikawa said.
"(They) have exhausted their coping mechanisms and are forced into begging, prostitution and trafficking to survive."
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and reports of sexual violence against unregistered refugees have increased in the last year.
The U.N. Refugee Agency UNHCR does not have access to these Rohingyas and few aid agencies – if any – are officially allowed to provide assistance.
"NO ONE HAS DIED"
Bangladesh's Salahuddin dismissed RI's claims of abuses and poor living conditions, saying there had been no reports of this.
"Those that are living outside the camps are surviving well because of the hospitality of our people in the area. No one has died or starved due to a shortage of food in that area," he told AlertNet by phone from Cox's Bazaar.
Salahuddin also denied claims made in the report that authorities in Dhaka were repeatedly delaying finalising a policy on the Rohingyas and intentionally preventing relief groups from aiding them.
"The government is actually very serious about dealing with the undocumented persons and we are making a policy on the better treatment of these people," he said.
"This is a transitional time - we are trying to formulate our policy which I am hopeful will be done soon. And, after all that, these issues will be settled and their lives will be better," he said.
HUMANITARIAN CRISIS INEVITABLE
Yoshikawa, however, said a humanitarian crisis is "inevitable," if the Bangladeshi government does not address the issues facing the refugees and said there are concerns even for the officially recognised Rohingyas.
The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), which provides food assistance to the official camps, is facing a $2 million shortfall in funding. It only has support to cover food needs until the end of June.
Christa Rader, WFP's country director for Bangladesh, told AlertNet the situation is "critical because the people living in the camps depend 100 percent on the food we provide".
And, despite the food aid, malnutrition levels in the camps are around 15 percent and the rate of chronic undernutrition is about 60 percent - which is considered severe. This has prompted WFP to start feeding programmes for hundreds of children under two years of age.
"What is more critical is the situation in the makeshift camps," Rader said.
The malnutrition rate in these camps is twice as high, according to RI.
The numbers are a concern even in Bangladesh which has one of the highest malnutrition rates in South Asia.
(additional reporting by Nita Bhalla)