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Questions surround Rohingya census in Bangladesh

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By BILL O'TOOLE

The Bangladeshi government will next month conduct a census of Rohingya refugees living on the nation’s shared border with Burma.

The count has the potential to bring much-needed security to hundreds of thousands of undocumented refugees, many of whom have lived in Bangladesh for decades. However, key questions regarding the methodology and goals of the process remain unanswered, leading some to criticise the government for a lack of transparency.

“Overall it sounds very promising,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the Rohingya human rights situation, “The problem is that everything is unclear.”

As Lewa and other observers have pointed out, the Bangladeshi government has yet to release basic information about how the data will be processed or what kind of documentation the cooperating refugees will receive.

Alamgir Hossain, director of the census for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, declined to comment when contacted by DVB last week. Mohammad Wahidur Rahman, deputy-head of the district statistical office at Cox’s Bazar also declined. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign affairs referred all questions to the embassy in Rangoon.

A Bangladeshi diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the government’s chose to handle the census internally in order to avoid antagonising Naypyidaw. The Thein Sein government and hardline nationalist groups have previously accused the international community of meddling in northern Arakan State.

The only outside group involved in the process is the International Orgainzation for Migration (IOM) which is providing outreach and awareness workshops separate from the actual count. Speaking over the phone from Dhaka, Asif Muneer, head of the IOM in Bangladesh, admitted that there were several points that the government “hasn’t clarified yet.”

Muneer acknowledged the criticisms of the count, saying “We can certainly see both sides of this argument”, but went on the say that the program has the full confidence of the IOM, and emphasised that the census represents a “big step” towards giving aid to isolated communities. “This will have a lot of implications for the future.”

Many Rohingya Muslims, who are referred to as “Bengalis” by the Burmese government, fled across the border from northern Arakan State into Bangladesh in the late 1970s and early 1990s. An additional wave came after the anti-Muslim violence in June 2012.

According to the UNHCR, today Bangladesh is home to somewhere between 200,000 to 500,000 Rohingya refugees. Of that number, 32,000 are registered in two official refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, the rest are undocumented.

While the UNHCR spearheaded several initiatives that allowed some Muslim refugees to voluntarily return to northern Arakan in the mid-1990s, they and other INGOs have been denied access to the undocumented Rohingya camps since 2005.

Speaking to DVB, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said this undocumented status leaves the Rohingya vulnerable to isolation and abuse. “Not only are they not able to access services, the greatest problem is they are forced to remain outside the criminal justice system.”

Ganguly speculated that the Bangladesh government has so far resisted international involvement because inviting UN participation will “draw more [Rohingya] to come”.

While she emphasised that the Bangladesh government should allow the international community “full access” to the undocumented Rohingya, she expressed sympathy with their position.

“The government says that the international community, instead of forcing Bangladesh to protect their rights, should press upon the Burmese authorities to end the discrimination and abuses that are forcing the Rohingya to flee.”

Preliminary surveys of undocumented communities ran from 13-17 February, the census itself will begin 1 April.