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UN: Burmese Refugees at Risk in Bangladesh

The U.N. refugee agency is appealing to authorities in Bangladesh for permission to relocate thousands of Burmese refugees living in Bangladesh to camps where they can receive urgent humanitarian assistance.  The agency says the refugees are living in life-threatening conditions.

The UNHCR, the European Commission, and diplomats from five donor countries recently completed an emergency mission to Teknaf in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh.

U.N .refugee agency spokeswoman Marie Helene Verney, says the officials went to see for themselves the plight of 6,000 to 10,000 refugees, who are from the Rohingya ethnic group. She says these people are living on the tidal river flats of the Teknaf River, which forms the border with Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

Ms. Verney says the refugees are living in extremely risky and squalid conditions.

"You have got thousands of people there. We do not really know how many. They are not registered. They have no water," she said.  "They have no sanitation. Obviously, during rainy season, they are at risk [during] high tide. They are at risk of flooding. Obviously, you have a lot of children living there. I mean it is really not something that can be allowed to go on for much longer."

Ms. Verney says the international community has been asking the government of Bangladesh to move the group as a matter of urgency since late last year. But so far, she says it has not received a response.

She says these people are stuck in this unfortunate position because of what she calls a technical administrative matter. She says the refugees arrived after more than one-quarter million other Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh in the early 1990s.

"They were recognized as refugees automatically because there were so many of them," Ms. Verney said. "It was clear that they were the victims of persecutiion in Myanmar. So there was no problem for them. This stopped in about '93, '94, this automatic recognition of people coming from Myanmar. And so these people arrived a bit later. No one is really discussing that they were [also] the victims of persecution ... and they have been suffering ever since."

Most of the 250,000 refugees who fled to Bangladesh in the early 1990s have gone back to Burma. But about 20,000 remain and are staying in two camps near the tidal flats where this group of refugees is staying.

Ms. Verney say the government and the local authorities consider the group living on the tidal flats illegal immigrants and want them to return to Burma. She says the international community opposes this and wants to move them to the two nearby camps where they could be safe and could receive humanitarian assistance.

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