U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Bangladesh

The 23,000 Burmese Rohingya refugees who repatriated during 1996 brought to some 220,000 the total number of Rohingya who have repatriated to Burma since 1992. An estimated 250,000 Burmese Rohingyas had fled to Bangladesh in 1991-92 to escape widespread human rights abuses at the hands of Burmese security forces, including forced labor and porterage, torture, rapes, and killings. By the end of 1996, only some 30,500 of the original 250,000 Rohingya remained in Bangladesh. However, some 10,000 other Rohingya entered Bangladesh during the year, bringing the total number of refugees to more than 40,000. UNHCR assisted 150 refugees of other nationalities, including 83 Somalis and 36 Burmese who were not Rohingya. An estimated 238,000 Biharis who were considered Pakistani nationals continued to live in Bangladesh in refugee-like circumstances. Some 53,000 Chakma refugees from Bangladesh remained in India. They fled there beginning in 1986 to escape harassment by the Bangladeshi military and Muslim settlers in their native Chittagong Hill Tracts region. The Bangladesh government has sought to persuade the Chakma to return, but they remain reluctant to do so. They say that the Bangladesh authorities did not live up to the promises they made to a trial group that repatriated in 1994. Although there was no organized Chakma repatriation during the year, according to the Bangladesh government, nearly 3,000 Chakma repatriated on their own initiative. The government said that it provided the returnees cash grants for shelter construction, food, and agricultural loans, and that the returnees were able to reclaim their former land. Burmese Rohingya When the Rohingya began entering Bangladesh in late 1991, the Bangladesh authorities welcomed them, but that attitude changed quickly. In late April 1992, even as Rohingya refugees continued to arrive, Bangladesh and Burma signed a repatriation agreement; UNHCR subsequently agreed to help facilitate the repatriation. Few refugees volunteered to repatriate, and reports soon surfaced that Bangladeshi camp officials were beating refugees and withholding their food rations to coerce them to leave. The authorities also restricted UNHCR's and NGOs' access to the refugees. In December 1992, UNHCR announced that it would no longer participate in the repatriation program. In 1993, Bangladesh permitted UNHCR greater access to the refugees, and Burma agreed to permit UNHCR to assist returnees in Burma. UNHCR resumed its participation in the repatriation. Despite UNHCR's involvement on both sides of the border, the repatriation program remained controversial. A number of NGOs, including USCR, said that the repatriation was not truly voluntary because the Bangladeshi authorities continued to employ abusive tactics to coerce the refugees to "volunteer" to repatriate. A number of NGOs also expressed concern about the returnees' well-being in Burma, particularly in view of the small number of UNHCR protection staff there and the difficulty UNHCR had in reaching many returnees' remote home areas. A total of 23,045 Rohingya repatriated during the year; only 30,500 of the Rohingya who entered Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992 remained there. USCR, which has issued several reports on the situation of the Rohingya, returned to Bangladesh in June 1996 to assess the repatriation and to document conditions for a new group of Rohingya refugees who had recently entered Bangladesh. A USCR site visit report in July said: The repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh cannot be considered fully voluntary. Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh believe they have no choice but to return to Burma. Although refugees who may fear repatriation have ample opportunity to inform UNHCR that they do not wish to return to Burma, most do not see such opposition to repatriation as a viable alternative. At the end of the year, UNHCR, which continued to term the repatriation voluntary, said that it had 22 international staff monitoring the returnees in Burma and that the Burmese authorities had "accepted the protection role of UNHCR and grant[ed] UNHCR's international staff unhindered access to all returnees." New Influx In late February and early March 1996, a new influx of Rohingya refugees began from Burma. By mid-June, when USCR arrived in Bangladesh, an estimated 6,500 to 10,000 Rohingya had entered the country. As many as one third of the new refugees appeared to be former refugees who had repatriated to Burma since 1992. The Bangladeshi security forces attempted to stem the flow of arrivals, intercepting more than 1,000 other Rohingya and forcibly returning them to Burma. In April, fifteen Rohingya drowned when their boat capsized while Bangladeshi authorities were attempting to force it back to Burma. Most of the new arrivals interviewed by USCR reported a combination of reasons for entering Bangladesh. Many said they had fled to escape forced labor, which they said they were subjected to more frequently than were other Burmese. Bangladesh initially refused to acknowledge the influx, even though it had arrested 200 new arrivals and charged them with smuggling or illegal entry. The government did not give UNHCR official access to the new arrivals and prohibited NGOs from assisting them. The government subsequently acknowledged the influx, but labeled the new arrivals economic migrants. UNHCR unofficially interviewed some 350 heads of household and forwarded details about 36 of those to the UNHCR office in Burma, which investigated the facts. UNHCR said that it had found that statements made by the new arrivals were not credible or were exaggerated, and that Rohingya in Arakan were generally not subjected to persecution as defined in the UN Refugee Convention. Bangladesh government officials invoked these UNHCR statements in denying the existence of any new refugees. On May 15, UNHCR's office in Maungdaw, Burma issued a leaflet warning would-be refugees that "the international community was not providing [new arrivals] any assistance" and that the majority of them were "hiding from the Bangladesh authorities and...facing extremely difficult living conditions." Most of the new arrivals were living outside the established refugee camps, either in makeshift shelters or with Bangladeshi families. In June, NGOs reported that an increasing number of recent arrivals were coming forward with health problems, but that, except in emergency cases, they could not assist them because the Bangladesh government barred them from serving new arrivals. Some of the new arrivals found work in brickyards, agricultural fields, or in the illegal, Bangladeshi-run, wood-cutting industry. The influx apparently ended by mid-June, perhaps as a result of rains, stepped-up interdiction by both Bangladeshi and Burmese authorities, and a UNHCR campaign to discourage Rohingya in Burma from going to Bangladesh. In August, UNHCR wrote to USCR, saying it continued to find that "endemic poverty, and food shortage in particular, constitute[d] the principal reason" for the departures from Burma during 1996. UNHCR added, however, that it could not "exclude the possibility of protection cases being among new arrivals," was "deeply concerned and alert to the risk of push-backs of new arrivals," and was therefore seeking Bangladesh's cooperation in developing "a more systemic and comprehensive approach to the monitoring of new arrivals." By the end of the year, although the Bangladesh government had not granted UNHCR any formal access, some 2,000 new arrivals had approached UNHCR for recognition or assistance. (In early March 1997, in response to a query about the number and status of the Rohingya who arrived during 1996, the embassy of Bangladesh in Washington wrote to USCR, "There is no record of new arrivals in Bangladesh in 1996.") Biharis An estimated 238,000 Biharis remained in Bangladesh in refugee-like circumstances. Some 380,000 Biharis, who are Urdu-speaking Muslims, migrated from India's Bihar state to what is now Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) at the time of India's partition in 1947. When Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan, the Biharis asked to move to Pakistan. Pakistan allowed more than 120,000 Biharis to move to Pakistan in 1973, but has not permitted any others to do so since then. In 1995, newspaper reports indicated that Pakistan no longer intended to accept the Biharis, but in June, the embassy of Pakistan in Washington wrote to USCR, saying that the reports were inaccurate.

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