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Rohingyas – the Search for Safety
By Amnesty International SEPTEMBER 1997
Thousands of Burmese Muslims from the Rakhine (Arakan) State in Myanmar, known as Rohingyas, fled into southeastern Bangladesh during the first half of 1997. Unlike more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees who came to Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992, these new arrivals are largely living in local villages rather than in designated refugee camps. The Government of Bangladesh has not permitted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview these people, asserting that they are all economic migrants. Amnesty International is aware of reports that some of the new arrivals have stated that they have left Myanmar solely because of economic hardship. However, it is concerned that others are in fact people fleeing serious human rights violations in Myanmar, and therefore would be in need of protection. Indeed, it should be noted that the distinction between economic hardship and violations of civil and political rights is not necessarily a clear one; for example, many of the Rohingyas have been unable to make a living due to continuing (unpaid) forced labour in Rakhine state. Given the grave human rights situation in Myanmar, it is impossible to state in a blanket fashion that Rohingyas are only fleeing economic hardship and therefore are not worthy of protection.
Rohingya refugees who arrived in Bangladesh in 1991 and 1992 fled massive human rights violations in the Rakhine State, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced labour and portering. The range and extent of these abuses constituted widespread repression of the Rohingyas by the Burmese security forces, resulting in huge numbers of refugees fleeing the country. This pattern of repression occurred in the context of the Burmese authorities’ denial of citizenship rights to the Rohingyas. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law most Rohingyas along with members of other ethnic minorities are not recognized as citizens. As a result, Rohingyas do not enjoy the right to freedom of movement within Myanmar. Amnesty International is concerned that the 1982 Citizenship law is being used to deny Rohingyas and members of other ethnic minorities their basic rights.
Although the human rights situation in the Rakhine State has marginally improved, forced labour, portering and forcible relocations under harsh conditions continue to be reported. Such practices are common throughout Myanmar, but members of ethnic minorities such as the Rohingyas are particularly vulnerable. Amnesty International has received reliable reports from eye-witnesses who have recently observed forced labour of civilians in the Rakhine State. According to witnesses Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities including the Arakanese and Mro, were forced to work on roads and bridges by the Burmese security forces in December 1996 and during the first half of 1997. Because civilians were forced to perform labour for substantial amounts of time, they were often unable to provide for their families. The border patrol administration in the Rakhine State, known as the Na Sa Ka, were reportedly one of the security forces responsible for seizing them as labourers.
These new arrivals joined over 21,000 Rohingyas living in camps in Bangladesh, the remainder of the over 250,000 refugees who had fled in the early 1990s.1 The others were repatriated back to Myanmar under an April 1992 agreement between the Bangladeshi authorities and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, Myanmar’s military authorities). That agreement, which came under harsh international criticism, did not provide for the involvement of the UNHCR. In May 1993 UNHCR signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Bangladesh and in April 1994 initiated an organized repatriation process. In November 1993 UNHCR was granted permission to establish a presence in the Rakhine State in order to monitor the status of the returnees. Since then tens of thousands of Rohingyas have been repatriated, although various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have expressed concern that the repatriation operation has gone forward without a fundamental improvement in the human rights situation in Myanmar, and have questioned whether the repatriation of many of these refugees was truly voluntary.