World Refugee Survey 2008 - Bangladesh

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Bangladesh, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 16 October 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

BGD figures


Bangladesh hosted some 178,000 refugees, almost all of them Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar fleeing ethnic and religious persecution since 1991. Estimates of the unregistered refugee population ranged from 100,000 to 200,000; they lived outside the camps and without legal status in the Cox's Bazar district and the Bandarban sub-district of Chittagong. The Government allowed temporary asylum on a case-by-case basis to those UNHCR recognized in urban areas and to the 26,300 Rohingyas it confined to two camps in the southern Cox's Bazar area: Nayapara, with about 16,000 refugees; and Kutupalong, with about 10,000. Canada resettled nearly 80 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh during the year.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

There were no reports of refoulement of UNHCR-registered refugees or asylum seekers. In late December, however, authorities forced some 14 Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar back over the border. At least several hundred left for other countries, such as Malaysia, because of the Government's severe restrictions against them in Bangladesh (see below).

In January, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) sealed the border to prevent entry of about 1,000 Rohingyas across the Naf River fleeing communal violence in the Arakan State of Myanmar.

Bangladesh was not party to either the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol and had no refugee law. The 1972 Constitution obliged the Government to "support oppressed peoples throughout the world waging a just struggle against ... racialism." It also provided that "no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law." There were no reports, however, of courts applying these provisions to refugees. The 1920 Passport Act, the 1946 Foreigner's Act, and the 1952 Control of Entry Act applied to all foreigners without exception for refugees. UNHCR and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), its implementing partner, conducted refugee status determinations. Applicants who received negative decisions could ask for an appeal interview with UNHCR within 30 days.

According to UNHCR, camp authorities ceased using corporal punishment, fines, and the systematic withholding of food as punishment. In January, however, camp police tortured to death a young Rohingya refugee after another refugee involved in a personal dispute with him claimed he was a terrorist. Some 9,500 lived in a makeshift camp between the Naf River and a highway where vehicles killed three refugees, two of them children. Children also drowned in frequent flooding. Bangladeshi nationals reportedly raped at least four camp-based Rohingya women in separate incidents: two of the cases were gang rapes and in one of those cases, the survivor was 15 years old. In May, Rohingya religious leaders issued a fatwa subjecting a refugee woman to 100 lashes for an alleged illicit relationship with another refugee. According to UNHCR, restrictions on movement and livelihoods contributed to "illegal activity, corruption, abuse and domestic violence," work exploitation, and survival sex.

Detention/Access to Courts

Authorities arrested at least 200 Myanmarese during the year for illegal entry. Most were ethnic Rohingya, although more than two dozen were Buddhist monks fleeing the crackdown on dissent at the end of the year. Several explicitly cited fear of persecution to the media and many were seeking to travel onward to Malaysia. Since June, police ceased charging refugees they arrested outside camps under the Foreigner's Act. According to UNHCR, however, authorities falsely accused many camp-based refugees of crimes and jailed many refugees for over a year for charges with maximum sentences of 3 months. In November, however, an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code separated judges from the executive and courts acquitted 42 refugees. Throughout the year, authorities released 94 refugees on bail, some following UNHCR's referrals to lawyers from BLAST, while others arranged for bail on their own. Eighty-four UNHCR-registered refugees, all men, remained in jail at year's end on various criminal and immigration charges.

With prior notice, authorities allowed UNHCR to visit detained refugees and asylum seekers. The Government permitted detainees' access to counsel and legal representation in court and, in some cases, UNHCR provided lawyers.

UNHCR began training BDR, which patrolled the border, on the difference between asylum seekers and migrants but they still treated asylum seekers as illegal entrants and often detained them, generally releasing them for bribes. According to UNHCR, camp officials used arbitrary arrest and detention "to force compliance in regard to monetary disputes, as well as to remove fathers and husbands from homes in order to more easily sexually abuse and exploit their female family members, including through forced marriages."

In January, police arrested and detained one unregistered refugee on trafficking charges, but released him upon payment of a 20,000 Taka (about $300) bribe. Also in January, authorities arrested 13 refugees from Nayapara camp for carrying firewood, beat them, and extorted 500 Taka (about $7.30) each from them. Later that month, in a nationwide, pre-election crackdown on crime, police arrested 4 refugees at a Teknaf jetty, opposite Maungdaw, Myanmar, as they were traveling and 25 others attempting to enter. In March, authorities arrested two refugees in Nayapara camp after finding a shotgun in one's residence, but others claimed informants in a personal dispute with the accused planted the weapon. In late May, authorities arrested a refugee leader for allegedly issuing the fatwa (see above), but refugees claimed the charges were false and intended to punish him for leading a ration strike and a demonstration against forcible repatriation from Kutupalong camp in 2004. In July, in Kutupalong camp, authorities arrested another leader of anti-forced-repatriation demonstrations, these in 1992, on arms charges dating from the same year.

The 1946 Foreigner's Act empowered the Government to arrest, detain, and confine foreigners, without exception for refugees, for security reasons. It did not allow detention longer than six months, however, unless an Advisory Board held a hearing with the detainee and approved.

The Government kept more than 400 Myanmarese and 200 Indians in jail beyond their sentences – on charges ranging from drug smuggling to illegal entry – citing their countries' refusal to accept their repatriation. According to UNHCR "violence and mistreatment of refugees in detention is widespread." The Dhaka Central Jail, with a capacity for 2,700 prisoners, held about 9,000 and the Cox's Bazar jail had an 800-detainee capacity, but held 3,600.

Sexual violence was difficult to punish, as the perpetrators were often security personnel, camp leaders and other camp personnel, and police. The Office of the Refugee and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), under the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management (MOFDM), oversaw camp administration, Mahjees – camp leaders the Government appointed in 1994 – and their volunteers. UNHCR, RRRC, camp personnel, and, to a limited extent, the Mahjees, governed arbitration mechanisms in the camps. According to UNHCR, corruption among camp officials and refugee leaders was "pervasive." In January, police arrested six people in the killing of a refugee from the Nayapara camp in Teknaf Township three days earlier.

Refugees could complain to the police or directly to the court in Cox's Bazar, but the police registered complaints only with referrals or agreement by the camp leadership. The 1972 Constitution guaranteed the protection of the law to citizens and to "every other person for the time being within Bangladesh" and allowed petitions for protection of fundamental rights to the High Court Division from "any person aggrieved," but local authorities did not apply the former and there was no record of refugees effectively using either.

In 1992, the Government issued the camp refugees with one Family Book per household. This served as their identity document and contained the names and other data of the family members. UNHCR issued individual photo identity cards, renewable yearly, to all UNHCR-recognized non-camp refugees above the age of 12; children under 12 were included on their parents' refugee identity cards. Police respected these cards throughout the country. UNHCR granted letters equivalent to an Asylum Seeker Certificate to all who applied with the agency. The letters had no security features such as digital photographs, but the Government recognized them.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

Authorities did not allow some 26,300 Rohingya refugees to leave the two official camps without permission, which it granted only for medical and hospital referrals, court appointments, and family visits between camps. As there were no fences surrounding the camps, except at the main entrance, many left illegally and managed to return without repercussion or, as of May, paying bribes. The Government, however, restricted all humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme (WFP) through the MOFDM to refugees registered in the two official camps. The non-camp refugees UNHCR recognized under its mandate were not eligible for any public relief. Local authorities restricted some 9,500 Rohingyas to squat on the tidal flats of the brackish Naf River after forcing them out of nearby villages. The UNHCR-recognized noncamp refugees, however, could travel freely throughout the territory and reside wherever they chose.

The 1972 Constitution reserved its protection of freedom of movement to citizens, while the 1946 Foreigner's Act, without exceptions for refugees, permitted the Government to require foreigners to reside in particular places and to impose "any restrictions" on their movements. Bangladesh had no law, regulation, or formal policy regulating the confinement of refugees and asylum seekers; authorities simply restricted it arbitrarily.

The Government issued no international travel documents to refugees.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Refugees and asylum seekers did not have the legal rights to work, to practice professions, to engage in business, or to own property. There was, however, no legal basis for denying them and authorities did not punish any for engaging in such activities during the year. In April, however, authorities made special announcements over loudspeakers in Teknaf to remind citizens of the prohibition and to encourage them to evict any refugees from housing they may be renting and not to lease rickshaws to them. The announcements followed a meeting of officials in Cox's Bazar the month before which, according to local media, "decided not to issue national identity cards, not to allow marriage to Rohingya people, not to pay for work, not to provide shelter, and not to issue any document to Rohingyas. If people do not comply with the order they would be punished according to the law."

Local officials reportedly used Rohingyas for illegal logging. Refugees also had no legal rights at the workplace, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and economic exploitation in the informal job sector. Authorities generally tolerated refugees' informal, low-skilled day labor in agriculture or fishing. Mahjees and village leaders imposed arbitrary taxes on Rohingya wages and fees for entering and leaving the camps. In May, however, RRRC formally agreed with UNHCR to abolish the practice.

Stateless Biharis in camps were not eligible for public sector jobs, or for the employer-required commissioners' certificates or character references. The Government denied jobs even to Bihari to whom the High Court had granted citizenship when it learned they lived in a camp. Most of those who worked did so in the informal sector.

Refugees could neither legally run businesses nor own property; and the 1972 Constitution reserved its property rights for citizens. Banks required citizen certificates from Ward Commissioners to open accounts, which excluded refugees. The 1972 Constitution guaranteed only to citizens the rights to work, to practice professions, and to conduct business.

Public Relief and Education

The Government offered no aid to refugees and restricted humanitarian access to them. In April, Teknaf Hospital reportedly refused service to at least one 6-year-old refugee boy hit by a vehicle, who later died of his injuries. In the camps, the daily number of medical examinations per doctor was four times the maximum of international standards. Hospitals run by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reportedly denied medications to refugees from the camps and the Government restricted their access to hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders, causing several to die.

Among the larger, self-settled population, half lived in extreme poverty, three-quarters of children under 5 were underweight, and literacy was between 17 and 22 percent. Since the Government stopped registering new refugees in 1992, some 5,000 more had entered or were born after 1992 that were not eligible for WFP rations.

Bangladesh did not permit the formal education of refugee children whether in camps or not. Refugee volunteers gave some informal primary education for two hours a day based on the Myanmar curriculum in eight schools in each camp. Instruction was in Myanmarese and English, even though the refugees' native language was closer to Bangla. Independent madrassas, however, did offer instruction in Bangla. The Government prohibited secondary education altogether.

UNHCR gave subsistence allowances, basic medical services, and education only to a few of those refugees it recognized in Dhaka. In July, UNHCR increased the allowances to 120 Taka (about $1.75) per day from 90 Taka (about $1.32) to compensate for increases in the prices of commodities and other services.

International agencies had to apply for permission to aid refugees, but the authorities did not deny any. The Government did not include refugees in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for international donors or other development plans. In 2006, however, ten international agencies launched a community development initiative that included some self-settled Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar.

In March 2008, Bangladesh applied to UNHCR for status as a donor nation pledging a minimal amount, perhaps $2,000, to participate in policies pertaining to the encamped Rohingyas.

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