GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency is appealing to Bangladesh to keep its borders open to Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic strife in Burma. The UNHCR says it has credible reports that Bangladeshi security forces are pushing back refugee boats when they arrive on their territory.
United Nations refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says the UNHCR is deeply concerned that people fleeing violence in Burma’s Rakhine State are unable to seek asylum in neighboring Bangladesh. He says the desperate situation of the minority-Rohingya Muslims is being made worse by their inability to find a safe, secure refuge.
“We have a situation where we have first-hand reports of the Bangladeshi security forces turning the arrivals by boat," Mahecic said. "There are now a number of boats adrift in the mouth of the Naf River. We have been talking to the Bangladeshi authorities and we hope that Bangladesh will, in line with its long tradition of hospitality with the people from Myanmar [Burma], will allow access to a safe haven and to assistance for these people.”
Mahecic says people on board these vessels are in desperate need of water, food and medical care. Bangladeshi guards reportedly have turned back many boats carrying hundreds of people.
Bangladesh has stepped up security along its 200-kilometer border with Burma to prevent an influx of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh, for years, has borne the brunt of the forced displacement of these people caused by earlier crises in Burma.
Earlier this week, Bangladesh's foreign ministry said it is not in the country's best interest to allow more Rohingyas into the country.
A total of 300,000 Rohingya live in Bangladesh. About one-tenth are sheltered in two official camps in the country's southern district of Cox’s Bazaar.
Deadly ethnic clashes between the Rohingya and Buddist Rakhine minority flared up in Burma’s Rakhine state one week ago. An estimated 30 people have been killed in the violence.
Mahecic says a U.N. team traveled to the affected region this week to assess the situation.
“The team saw smoldering villages. Based on what we saw, we consider that the displacement could be considerable. The government estimates that some 30,000 people have been displaced. There are efforts under way to calm the situation. The situation is tense still,” he said.
The U.N. spokesman says the refugee agency was forced to temporarily withdraw its staff from the area last week because of the dangerous situation.
Mahecic says he hopes it will be possible for the staff to return soon to monitor the situation on the ground and to provide essential needs to the displaced.