U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Bangladesh

  At the end of 1997, Bangladesh hosted more than 40,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma. Bangladesh also hosted 70 refugees from Somalia and 25 from Iran. About 238,000 Biharis in Bangladesh lived in refugee like circumstances. USCR visited Bangladesh in August to assess conditions for both the Rohingya and the Biharis. (See article, p. 119.) About 21,500 recognized Rohingya refugees lived in UNHCR-assisted camps. About 20,000 others lived outside the camps, among local people. Bangladesh did not regard them as refugees and blocked UNHCR access to them. During the year, 10,075 recognized Rohingya refugees repatriated to Burma. Of these, Bangladesh forcibly returned 400. The rest returned under a "voluntary repatriation" program that USCR and many other observers did not consider truly voluntary. Also during the year, 13,500 Bangladeshi Chakma refugees repatriated from India; an estimated 40,000 Chakma refugees remained in India. Refugees from Burma Some 250,000 Burmese Rohingya refugees entered Bangladesh in late 1991 and early 1992. The Rohingya are closely related to Bangladeshis ethnically and culturally. Although Bangladesh initially welcomed them, within months it began trying to repatriate them. Between mid-1992 and the end of 1997, some 230,000 Rohingya repatriated. Bangladesh forced some to repatriate and coerced many into doing so. Others went home voluntarily. The 21,500 Rohingya refugees remaining from the 1991-92 group live in two camps where tension runs high and where clashes between the refugees and Bangladeshi authorities are frequent. On July 20, Bangladesh forcibly repatriated 400 Rohingya, sparking fighting in the camps and a prolonged refugee hunger strike. During 1996 and 1997, thousands of other Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. Most observers estimated their number at 9,000 to 20,000. Press reports indicated that more than 5,000 Rohingya entered in June 1997 alone, though other sources suggested that only 2,000 to 3,000 had entered between April and June. The refugees say that they fled because of continued human rights abuses and because the Burmese authorities make it impossible for them to survive. They say they spend so much time in forced labor that they cannot attend to their own fields, that they are taxed excessively, and that the Burmese government sets prices for basic necessities so high in areas where the Rohingya live that they cannot afford even basic items. Bangladeshi authorities label the new refugees "economic migrants" and treat them as such. Bangladesh has barred UNHCR and international NGOs from assisting the new arrivals. Authorities have also rounded up new arrivals and forcibly returned them to Burma (though most reportedly made their way back into Bangladesh). On July 24, USCR issued a statement saying that Bangladeshi authorities were "not only putting thousands of Burmese...refugees at immediate risk, they are endangering refugees worldwide by further undermining the principle of asylum." Many of the new arrivals live in the town of Cox's Bazar, often crowded several families to a house. There are few jobs, so most survive by seeking day labor, and, in the most extreme cases, by begging. Since 1992, many local people have developed negative attitudes toward the Rohingya. The arrival of thousands of additional Rohingya who, out of desperation, will work longer hours for less pay than local people has exacerbated those tensions. Because of this animosity and their fear of deportation, the Rohingya avoid being identified as refugees. Bangladesh does not permit NGOs to assist the new arrivals, even with medical care. That, as well as overcrowding and lack of food, led to health problems among the new arrivals. UNHCR and NGOs requested access to the new arrivals, but the government refused, fearing that providing the refugees assistance would encourage many more Rohingya to enter Bangladesh. New arrivals whom USCR met acknowledged that if new camps were established, more Rohingya would seek refuge in Bangladesh. They said that Burmese authorities' abuse of Rohingya is so harsh that a refugee camp offering safety and assistance is a desirable alternative to remaining in Burma. Refugees from Bangladesh On December 2, 1997, the government of Bangladesh and the Shanti Bahini rebel group signed a peace agreement ending 25 years of conflict. The Shanti Bahini sought greater autonomy for Chakma and other ethnic minorities, mostly Buddhists, who are the traditional residents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area of predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. The Chakma complained that Muslim settlers were driving them from their land. Tens of thousands of people reportedly died during the conflict, and tens of thousands of refugees from the CHT area fled to India, mostly in the mid-1980s. In early 1997, some 53,000 Chakma refugees were still in India. The December peace agreement was the fruit of years of on-again, off-again talks between the two sides. Progress in the talks encouraged hundreds of Chakma refugees to repatriate to Bangladesh beginning in March 1997. In December, following the agreement, however, thousands repatriated. Altogether, some 13,500 Chakma repatriated in 1997; only 40,000 Chakma refugees remained in India at year's end. Bangladesh promised to spend $462 million on development projects in the CHT area. (The Shanti Bahini formally surrendered on February 10, 1998, and by late February 1998, all of the Chakma refugees in India had repatriated to Bangladesh.)

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