The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Stephen Greene
sgreene [at] phrusa [dot] org

Richard Sollom
rsollom [at] phrusa [dot] org

Persecuted in Two Countries, Burmese Refugees Face Starvation in Bangladesh Camps


Stateless refugees from Burma face death from starvation and disease
in makeshift camps because the government of Bangladesh denies them
access to humanitarian aid, warns a team of health researchers from
Physicians for Human Rights who just returned from the region.

In a survey of 100 households at one camp conducted Feb. 11-13, they
documented that more than 18% of children below age 5 suffered from
acute malnutrition. Child malnutrition rates above 15% indicate a
"critical" situation, according to the World Health Organization. More
than half the children had had diarrhea in the past 30 days - a
reflection of the camp's unsanitary conditions. Many refugees reported
that they had not eaten for two days.

In a 25-page report released today, PHR calls on the government of
Bangladesh to immediately stop arresting refugees and forcing them back
across the border. It also sounds an alarm about an ominous campaign of
ethnic incitement conducted by Bangladeshi authorities. The report
calls for a comprehensive regional response to the Bangladesh
government's failure to protect and care for the refugees, as well as
to the human rights violations in Burma that have caused some 300,000
Muslim minority Rohingya to flee that country.

"It is unconscionable to leave this vulnerable population stateless
and starving," says Richard Sollom, PHR's Director of Research and
Investigations. "Immediate steps are needed to prevent further
malnutrition, disease, and death."

In February, the PHR team conducted an emergency health assessment
in the makeshift Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh, just
across the border from Burma. Sollom and his colleague, emergency
physician Parveen Parmar from Harvard University, described camp
conditions as among the worst they had ever seen, with people housed in
ramshackle huts made of twigs and plastic sheeting, denied food aid,
and living beside open sewers.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya -- a Muslim ethnic minority -- have
crossed into Bangladesh since 1991 to escape persecution in Burma,
where they have been subjected to systematic and widespread human
rights violations, including summary executions, torture,
state-sanctioned rape, arbitrary arrest, and forced labor.

The Bangladeshi government has only registered 28,000 Rohingya, who
receive protection, humanitarian assistance, and food rations from UN
agencies and international NGOs. But since 1993, the government has
denied 200,000 subsequent Rohingya arrivals official refugee status,
making them ineligible for UN aid and protection.

In recent months, the government of Bangladesh has stepped up its
own persecution of the Rohingya, possibly in an effort to discourage an
influx of new arrivals in the run-up to elections in Burma later this
year. The PHR team interviewed 25 refugees, some of whom were among the
hundreds who have been rounded up, beaten, and forcibly expelled from
the country over the past several months.

The PHR emergency report on the humanitarian crisis, Starving and Stateless,
calls on the government of Bangladesh immediately to cease the
arbitrary arrest and forced expulsion of legitimate refugees from the
country; to allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to provide
relief to vulnerable refugee populations; and to condemn and prevent
the campaign of ethnic hatred against Rohingya refugees.

The PHR report also calls on the Burmese government to stop its
widespread human rights violations against ethnic minorities, including
the Rohingya. The report further urges the UN refugee agency to assert
its mandate to protect and assist the unregistered Rohingya as a
population of concern; to press the government of Bangladesh to allow
humanitarian aid to flow unhindered to the Rohingya; and to launch a
coordinated appeal to donor nations for humanitarian relief and
protection for this neglected population.

"Thousands of Rohingya who fled intolerable persecution in Burma now
face equally bleak conditions in Bangladesh, because the government
there has refused to recognize their status as refugees," says Sollom.
"What will it take to get them the aid they need to survive?"

PHR was founded in 1986 on the idea that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical duties, and credible voices, are uniquely positioned to investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them. PHR mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity, and justice and promotes the right to health for all.