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Myanmar refugees' long stay in Bangladesh to stretch even further

Publication Date : 08-07-2012


The recent sectarian violence in Myanmar has jeopardised the repatriation of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh for the last 21 years.

Already the process has remained stalled for the last seven years because of issues such as the unwillingness of the refugees to go back and complications in getting clearance from the Myanmar government.

Last month's clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the neighbouring country have created further apprehensions about the future of the repatriation.

The situation worsened at a time when people involved with the refugee issue were expecting the repatriation to resume with Myanmar's return to democracy.

Officials say some initiatives were taken in the last few years to send back the Rohingyas, but things went back to square one as sectarian clashes broke out in the bordering Myanmarese towns of Maungdaw and Akyab.

Some 2,50,877 Rohingyas took shelter as registered refugees in dozens of camps across Cox's Bazar district from November 1991 to June 1992. After this influx, Bangladesh could send back 2,36,599 refugees till 2005, officials statistics show.

Only 19,000 Rohingyas, including those born here, were left at two refugee camps following the last repatriation in 2005.

But over the years the number of registered refugees in the two camps -- one at Nayapara of Teknaf and another at Kutupalang of Ukhia upazila -- has risen to 29,325. Around 18 thousand of them live at the Nayapara camp alone.

Of the total number of refugees in the two camps, around 4,000 do not get facilities as refugees because they were not present during the last survey in 2005.

Many refugees who were absent during the survey later on different occasions came and claimed to be registered refugees. Although allowed to live in the camps, they did not get permits to receive rations.

An official said refugees were not allowed to go out of the camp but they hardly follow the rule.

One of the reasons behind the rise in the number of refugees from around 19 thousand to around 29 thousand in the last seven years is new births.

Some 68 refugees were sent back to Myanmar from Nayapara camp in 2005, and 35 refugees died the same year. But the number rose from 455 that year due to the birth of 558 children in the refugee families.

After 2005, there was no other repatriation except for some resettlement of some 926 refugees in third countries in the last few years.

Mohammad Kamruzzaman, who is in charge of Nayapara camp, recently told The Daily Star that 57 per cent population of the refugee camps were those born here over the last 21 years.

Population growth rate and the family size of the Rohingya refugees are higher than that of Bangladesh.

According to the 2011 census, the average family size in the country is 4.4. But local officials say the figure is over 8 in the Rohingya refugee camps. Bangladesh's population growth rate is 1.34 per cent but that of Rohingyas' is around 3pc.

Besides, the national infant mortality rate is 37 per thousand a year. In the camps it is only five.

Officials say they face complications in the process of repatriation, which has to be voluntary according to a memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Bangladesh needs clearance from Myanmar before sending back even a single Rohingya refugee.

Over the years, Yangon has given clearance for 10,315 refugees following verification. More than 15 thousand are yet to get the nod.

Officials say Dhaka sent Yangon a list of around six thousand Rohingya refugees for clearance in August 2009.

As the repatriation has been stalled for many years, the refugee families who were waiting to be repatriated despite securing the clearance had new members born. The additional population would now require the clearance.

Against this backdrop, Bangladesh made some moves in the last few years to repatriate the Rohingya refugees. Myanmar also expressed its willingness to take back some 2,415 refugees from the list of verified ones.

In November last year, the Myanmar embassy in Dhaka wrote a letter to Bangladesh, saying its government was “ready and willing” to receive 2,415 verified individuals under both countries' approval and in cooperation with UNHCR.

Besides, very few refugees want to return to their country. Those who are willing to go back want to return with all the relatives they have in the camps. Even some families who came from the same villages of Myanmar want to go back together.

Some officials said there was at least a little hope of repatriation before the early June sectarian clashes.

The Daily Star talked to a few hundred refugees at Nayapara camp in Teknaf in the third week of last month. All of them said they would feel insecure in Myanmar.

“The recent incidents [clashes in Maungdaw and Akyab] have further delayed the repatriation process,” said Md Feroz Salah Uddin, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.

“But as soon as the situation [in Myanmar] improves, the process [of repatriation] will acquire pace,” he said and hoped for a solution to the recent problems in Myanmar's bordering area with Bangladesh shortly.

Salah Uddin said it was very important to build confidence among the Rohingya refugees so that they could decide to go back to their homeland. “I hope it [repatriation] will be quicker, if Myanmar comes forward to build this confidence.”

Though there has been no repatriation since 2005, the authorities have resettled some 926 Rohingya refugees in Canada, the UK, New Zealand, the US, Norway, Ireland, Sweden and Australia.

But it has had a negative impact on the repatriation process, because refugees now prefer resettlement to going back to Myanmar.

"As time goes by, the issue gets more complicated. But nobody is going for a permanent solution," Salah Uddin said.

Nayapara camp in-charge Kamruzzaman said there were three solutions: repatriation, reintegration (merger with the local population) and resettlement.

Some officials said the UNHCR had been pursuing Bangladesh for the latter to allow Rohingya refugees to work in its territory, though they do not have any permission to go out of the camp. The authorities were even told to let the refugees merge with Bangladeshis.

Salah Uddin told this correspondent, “Repatriation is the best solution and all efforts should be concentrated on this.”

It would be helpful if UNHCR gave importance to repatriation, he said, adding that efforts from UNHCR and international agencies were needed more in Myanmar for the sake of the repatriation of refugees.



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