Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Bangladesh

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Bangladesh , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 19 February 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.

At the end of 2002, Bangladesh hosted more than 122,000 refugees and asylum seekers. These included nearly 21,900 Burmese Rohingya recognized as prima facie refugees by Bangladesh and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); an estimated 100,000 other Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since 1993, are not assisted by UNHCR, and are considered illegal immigrants by the Bangladeshi government; more than 120 persons of other nationalities recognized as refugees by UNHCR; and 22 persons with claims pending before UNHCR.

During the year, 760 Rohingya repatriated to Burma with UNHCR assistance. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported incidents of coercion and forced return.

Some 240,000 to 300,000 Biharis, who moved from India's Bihar State to then-East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947, were living in Bangladesh in refugee-like circumstances at year's end.

An estimated 60,000 Chakma and other Jumma peoples (ethnic groups of which the Chakma are a subgroup) were internally displaced in Bangladesh.

An unknown number of Hindus and other religious minorities from Bangladesh remained internally displaced or were asylum seekers in India as a result of post-election violence that began in October 2001.

Nearly 7,000 Bangladeshis sought asylum elsewhere during the year, including more than 1,100 in Austria, more than 1,000 in the Slovak Republic, and nearly 1,000 in the United States.

Burmese Rohingya

Some 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Burma in late 1991 and early 1992. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, fled religious and other forms of persecution in Burma.

Between mid-1992 and 1999, more than 230,000 Rohingya repatriated to Burma. Although they returned with UNHCR assistance, Bangladesh coerced most of the refugees into returning. In addition, the Burmese military regime insisted on approving individual refugees for return, based on a list of names submitted by the Bangladeshi government. (Burma maintained that some of the refugees were not citizens or former residents of Burma and, therefore, were ineligible for return.)

In July 1997, the returns stalled because of riots in the camps and other anti-repatriation activities. Returns resumed in November 1998, but Burma insisted on "reconfirming" the refugees' eligibility to repatriate. Between 1999 and 2001, some 2,700 refugees repatriated with UNHCR assistance.

In the first nine months of 2002, about 300 refugees repatriated. In October, the pace of returns increased, bringing the year's total to 760. UNHCR offered several reasons for the increase, including increased financial and material incentives for the refugees, Burma's willingness to accept the return of some family members without the others, and a reduced standard of living in the camps.

Refugees, however, said many returns were the result of threats and harassment by Bangladeshi authorities, including imprisonment of heads of families. Refugees also reported that they were unable to speak to UNHCR protection officers and object to repatriating.

At year's end, nearly 21,900 of the Rohingya who entered Bangladesh in 1991 to 1992 remained there, mostly living in two UNHCR-run camps. Of those, Burma had cleared nearly 5,600 for return.

However, because most refugees still did not wish to return to Burma, long-term prospects remained uncertain. During the year, UNHCR expressed its intent to discontinue its role in the organized repatriations beginning July 1, 2003. Beyond that, said UNHCR, repatriation will be handled bilaterally between the two governments. UNHCR also noted, "the time may have come to seek other solutions as well."

In the meantime, donor governments have shown increasing reluctance to fund UNHCR's assistance programs in the camps. As a result, the refugee agency has sought to introduce projects aimed at helping the refugees become more self-sufficient, thus facilitating the agency's eventual withdrawal from the camps. The Bangladeshi authorities, however, fearful that the refugees might become too well established, have rejected many of these proposals. In 2002, at the request of Bangladesh, UNHCR presented to donor countries and UN agencies the outline of a project to shift refugees from care and maintenance to self-sufficiency, which UNHCR said would benefit the local Bangladeshi population as well. During the project, UNHCR would gradually phase out assistance activities while bilateral development agencies, NGOs, and UN agencies phased in.

Since 1993, Bangladesh has sought to curb new refugee arrivals – an effort with limited success, given that an estimated 100,000 additional Rohingya have entered Bangladesh since that time. (The actual number is unknown; the 100,000 estimate has been quoted frequently for several years, while some local media put the number as high as 200,000.) They have fled continued forced labor, religious persecution, and other human rights violations in Burma.

Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge the post-1993 arrivals as refugees and has barred UNHCR and NGOs from assisting them. The newer arrivals, therefore, live outside of the camps in difficult conditions as undocumented migrants.

In November, Bangladeshi authorities began evicting undocumented Rohingya from their homes in the town of Teknaf. Some 3,000 of the Rohingya camped out in front of local administration buildings, where they remained at year's end.

Despite the difficulties, Rohingya continued to flee to Bangladesh in 2002. Among those were some who had previously been in the camps and had returned either voluntarily or by force.


An estimated 240,000 to 300,000 Biharis, many of whom consider themselves citizens of Pakistan, live in refugee-like circumstances in camps in Bangladesh. The Biharis, who are Urdu-speaking, non-Bengali Muslims, were among a larger group who moved from India's Bihar State to then-East Pakistan in 1947, at the time of India's partition.

In 1971, following a bloody struggle for independence, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Some Biharis, having supported Pakistan in the war, migrated from Bangladesh to Pakistan after the conflict, but most were too poor to make the move. The residual population remained stranded in Bangladesh, having rejected Bangladeshi citizenship and awaiting the day when Pakistan would send for them.

Pakistan's reluctance to resettle the Biharis (sometimes referred to as the "stranded Pakistanis") results both from the cost of large-scale resettlement and fears that the Biharis' arrival could exacerbate existing ethnic and political tensions in Pakistan.

Conditions in the Bihari camps are poor; sanitation and the water supply are inadequate. Crime is also a problem, and young Bihari women are reportedly targeted by sex traffickers.

The August 2002 visit to Bangladesh of Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, sparked hopes among Biharis that their situation might finally be resolved. However, while Musharraf and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia reportedly discussed the Biharis, no progress was made on Bangladesh's continued quest to relocate them to Pakistan.

Chittagong Hill Tracts

In the mid-1980s, Muslim settlers' appropriation of land belonging to ethnic minorities in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region caused some 64,000 members of those groups, the vast majority of them Chakma, to flee to India and more than 60,000 others to become internally displaced.

In December 1997, the government of Bangladesh signed a peace accord that ended a 25-year conflict with the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS) – a CHT solidarity movement – and its now-defunct armed insurgent wing, the Shanti Bahini, composed primarily of ethnic Chakma. The accord allowed limited regional autonomy in the CHT.

Subsequently, the entire refugee population returned from India. However, the situation of the more than 60,000 internally displaced Chakma remained unresolved at the end of 2002, despite provisions in the accord for the "rehabilitation" of both the refugees and the internally displaced.

Uncertainty in the CHT has grown since the national elections of October 2001, because the victorious Bangladesh National Party (BNP) views the 1997 peace accord – signed by the then-ruling Awami League – as a loss of Bangladeshi sovereignty. The BNP has since halted implementation of remaining provisions of the accord, prompting fresh violence in 2002 between tribal groups and security forces, as well as between tribal factions that supported the accord (primarily the PCJSS) and those that opposed it (particularly the United People's Democratic Front).

In December, leaders of the PCJSS and the Awami League predicted that turmoil could soon return to the CHT.

Bangladeshi Hindus

Following the October 2001 election, an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 Bangladeshi Hindus and other minorities fled to India to escape violence against the minorities. An unknown number of Hindus, perhaps as many as 200,000, became internally displaced.

Bangladesh's population is approximately 88 percent Muslim and 11 percent Hindu. In July 2001, Bangladesh's government, headed by the Awami League party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, stepped down after reaching the end of its five-year term. The Awami League, which most Hindus supported, was known for its secular policies and its close relations with India.

The BNP and its allies, including two Islamist groups, won a landslide election and were installed as a coalition government.

After the elections, militant Islamists targeted Hindus, as well some Buddhists, Christians, and moderate Muslims. The attackers reportedly committed rape, looting, house burning, and theft of livestock and household goods.

Between 5,000 and 20,000 Bangladeshi Hindus fled to India, most to the eastern states of West Bengal and Tripura, with others going to Assam and Meghalaya. At the end of 2002, however, reliable estimates – even a range – of Bangladeshi Hindus who were internally displaced or who were asylum seekers in India were unavailable.

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