UNHCR, the European Commission and diplomats from five donor countries have completed an emergency mission to Teknaf in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh to see for themselves the plight of more than 6,000 Myanmarese from the Rohingya ethnic group living in extremely risky and deplorably squalid conditions.
The mission, last Friday, saw the Myanmarese literally living on the tidal river flats of the Teknaf River, which forms the border with Myanmar. They are extremely vulnerable to seasonal high tides, flooding and cyclones during the monsoon season. There is no water or sanitation at the site, creating a health hazard. Since late last year, the international community has been asking the government to move the group as a matter of urgency, but so far has not received a response. The European Commission has said it will provide emergency humanitarian assistance for water and sanitation once the group is moved to safer ground. The government and the local authorities consider the group illegal immigrants and say they should return to Myanmar.
The Teknaf group originally formed two and a half years ago after the Bangladesh government moved some 3,600 Rohingyas from villages in the surrounding areas where they had been living for up to 10 years, to a spot along the Teknaf River. Six months later, they were again moved 2 km to the current site. The group has been growing as more Rohingyas facing problems with local communities have moved to the area. A small number of new arrivals from Myanmar, and some 'double-backers' - the term used for refugees who repatriated to Myanmar, then fled again - are also part of the group. There are no accurate figures for the composition of the group, and numbers range from 6,000 to 10,000 as the population fluctuates.
The group are unregistered people of concern to UNHCR. The only difference from Rohingya refugees in the two government-run camps is that they were either not in the camps during the 1991-92 influx, or they had arrived after the 1994 cut-off date for prima facie refugee status. Even though Rohingyas in the group have been living unregistered outside the camps, their reasons for coming to Bangladesh are the same as the refugees in the camps.
In the early 1990s, over 250,000 Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh and were sheltered in 20 camps. Some 236,000 Rohingyas have since repatriated to Myanmar. Currently, about 20,500 registered refugees are living in the remaining two government-run camps in the Cox's Bazar district in difficult circumstances with poor shelter, sanitation and security conditions. The Bangladesh government has not agreed to any self-reliance or self-sustaining activities in or outside the camps, insisting that the only solution for these refugees is repatriation to Myanmar. But so far this year, only 90 refugees have chosen to return home in spite of an increased repatriation package given by UNHCR.