By Joseph Allchin
Dhaka has rejected a proposed $US33 million UN project to alleviate poverty in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar where several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees have sought asylum.
The impoverished region lies close the border with Burma’s western Arakan state, from where hundreds of thousands of the persecuted Muslim minority have fled.
But the issue of aid to this region has been locked in battle over assistance to the Rohingya. An unnamed Bangladeshi official quoted by the Express newspaper said: “The finance ministry has rejected the scheme because the actual aim of the UN initiative is to rehabilitate refugees in Cox’s Bazar district under the pretext of poverty reduction for locals.”
Chris Lewa, from The Arakan Project, which monitors human rights abuses against the Rohingya, says however that “the four UN agencies joined together to raise funds and support activities to alleviate poverty for both the communities”, but that the Bangladesh “government does not want any assistance to go to the Rohingya.”
Dhaka has been keen to not encourage the steady flow of Rohingya out of Arakan state. Lewa says “they [Bangladesh government] think it would create a pull factor” to Cox’s Bazaar.
The UN project was supposed to be a done by UNICEF, the World Food Programme, UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
The Rohingya have fled Burma in recent decades because of alleged discrimination by the government. The situation has become so bad that Refugees International claimed in a recent report that they are “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”
The majority of Rohingya in Bangladesh live in makeshift camps, and largely as a result of Bangladeshi policy, receive little international assistance. Lewa says the recent refusal of UN aid is not a new phenomenon. Only 26,000 are officially registered whilst unregistered refugees are thought to number as many as 500,000.
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, as well as being one of the most impoverished. Lewa confirms that the area where the majority of Rohingya seek asylum, Teknaf, is “identified as one of the poorest [areas] in the whole of Bangladesh.”
The Bangladeshi government official further told the Express that “Instead of helping cut poverty in the region, the UN project would only increase tension between the Rohingyas and the locals. No doubt, it will infuriate the local people”.
But Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, alleges that “the intention I believe is to make Bangladesh an inhospitable spot for the Rohingya to reside”.
He continues that the Bangladeshi government tolerates hostile “highway robbery” against the Rohingya, against whom “they have declared open season”.
The Burmese government recently appointed a new ambassador to Bangladesh, U Hla Win. He reportedly told Bangladeshi President M. Zillur Rahman that the Burmese government wanted to resolve the Rohingya issue through dialogue and discussion.
Lewa told DVB however that the situation was “deteriorating further”. She alleges that instances of forced labour and arbitrary arrests by the Burmese border security force, known as Nasaka, are increasing.
Relations between the two countries appear be warmer than they have been for a number of years, with Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper reporting that the country would be Burmese President Thein Sein’s first port of call since taking office in March.
Bangladesh has already played host to Burma’s airforce chief, Lt General Myat Hein, who arrived on the 23 April in what was the first high-level official visit of a Burmese official to the country since 2008.