SRI On-Site Action Alert: Rohingya Refugees of Burma and UNHCR’s repatriation program[1]


July 17, 2003





The international community continues to be highly concerned about the curtailment of political and civil rights of the Burmese people by the military government. The recent crackdown on Aung Sun Su Kyi and the largest democratic party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is an alarming indication that the recognition of the rights and aspirations of the people of Burma has been further marginalized. Human rights organizations particularly concerned about the human rights violations that are being perpetrated throughout the country, and specifically in the largely Muslim state of Arakan that has experienced large-scale persecution of civic, economic and political rights of the Rohingya Muslim population by the military junta. Survivors' Rights International, a Washington-based NGO working on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, is particularly concerned about the Rohingya population who has been brutalized through systematic practices of forced labor, denial of rights to property, education and travel. SRI is further concerned about the conditions of the Rohingya refugee camps in the south east of Bangladesh, which were set up in 1992 to house the thousands who fled across the Burmese border into Bangladesh to seek safety. The recent repatriation program being implemented by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in coordination with the government of Bangladesh has raised concerns among international organizations about the procedures involved in the repatriation process and the urgency with which they are being conducted. To investigate the recent developments with regard to UNHCR's new policy toward the Rohingyas, a representative from SRI, Tazreena Sajjad, traveled to Bangladesh in the month of June and interviewed all officials and refugees within and outside the camps concerned regarding this new repatriation program and the ongoing hostilities in Arakan, Burma.



·        The Rohingyas, constitute the largest minority group in the state of Arakan and have been subjected to severe discriminatory policies by the government of Burma. They have endured large-scale human rights violations such as forced labor, denial of education, rights to property, freedom of movement, religion, etc;

·        Today, there are about 21,000 documented Rohingya refugees from the state of Arakan in Burma, in the two camps of Kutapalong and Nayapara in Teknaf, Bangladesh;

·        In addition, more than 200,000 ( and perhaps as much as 350,000) Rohingyas live outside the refugee camps in Bangladesh alone with no formal documentation as refugees;

·        Thousands of undocumented Rakhine Buddhists have also fled to Bangladesh and live outside of formal encampments;

·        The government of Bangladesh with assistance from UNHCR has recently begun a program of rapid repatriation of the refugees to Burma, with the latter emphasizing its need to cut down its program in Teknaf and the former eager to address the ‘problem once and for all.


Summary of Recent Developments

SRI is concerned about the possible cut-down of vital UNHCR programs serving the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh beginning July 2003. SRI has been informed that increasing pressure by local UNHCR officials and the authorities of the Bangladesh government is being placed on the Rohingya population to facilitate this process. Allegedly, these pressures include verbal and physical harassment and ill-treatment by the field staff to induce the refugees to repatriate against their will. This kind of treatment is in violation of the United Nations Convention on Refugees (1951) and is a cause for concern about the fairness and timelines of the repatriation program itself that is being pursued with such vigor and with such urgency. SRI is further apprehensive about the reality that the situation in Arakan, and indeed in the whole of Burma has not improved since the early nineties. The recent incarceration of democratic leader Aung Sun Au Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) are perhaps indications that the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people have suffered a huge setback. In the context of this situation SRI urges caution in pursuing the repatriation program and UNHCR's proposed idea of limiting its services to the desperately impoverished Rohingya community.


So far, the United Nations has sent the UN Secretary General's Envoy to Burma, urging the junta generals to enter into dialogue with the democracy movement, and extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Burma, expressing concern about the high level of human rights violation. The International labor Organization (ILO) has also recommended sanctions against Burma for her widespread forced labor. Now it is time for the UN Security Council to take the issue up.


As mentioned earlier, about 350,000 refugees fled across Burma's borders to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, and India. These refugees often live in poor conditions, falling short of international standards, but these governments have consistently failed to provide access to international human rights organizations to address these problems. More seriously, as of June 1, 2003, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India, save China, have not been signatures to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention), which is the most important refugee law and has been ratified by 142 nations[3].  This reflects not only the unwillingness of these countries to submit to international scrutiny on their refugee policies. A consistent legal framework is vital to refugee protection.


History of the Rohingya Muslims

The Rohingya Muslims are predominantly concentrated in the northern part of the Rakhine State (Arakan) and constitute about half the state's population. Shortly after the independence of Burma in 1948, some of the Muslims carried out an armed rebellion demanding a separate Muslim state within the Union of Burma. Though the rebellion was squashed in 1954, Burmese administration has since then been distrustful of the Muslim population. Even so, the Rohingyas were close to having their ethnicity and autonomy recognized in the 1950s under the democratic government of U Nu, but the plans were thwarted by the military coup of General Ne Win in 1962.


Ne Win's Burma's Socialist People's Party claimed that the Muslims of Arakan were illegal immigrants who had settled in Burma during British rule. The central government took measures to drive them out, starting with the denial of citizenship. The 1974 Emergency Immigration Act stripped the Rohingyas of their nationality rendering them foreigners in their own land. The denial of citizenship remains the root cause of the Rohingya's endless cycle of forced migration.


In 1977, the Burmese military government launched an operation called Naga Min, or Dragon King, to register the citizens and prosecute illegal entrants. The nation-wide campaign started in Arakan and the mass arrests and persecution, accompanied by violence and brute force, triggered an exodus in 1978 of approximately 200,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh. Within 16 months of their arrival, most were forced back after bilateral agreements were made between the governments of Burma and Bangladesh. Some 10,000 refugees died, mostly women and children, due to severe malnutrition and illness after food rations were cut to compel them to leave.


In 1998, the world witnessed the bloody crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations nationwide by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in Burma. In 1990, there were elections in which the Muslims were voted for and represented which the SLORC refused to recognize. Shortly thereafter, the SLORC dramatically increased its military presence in the northern Rakhine State. The junta justified the exercise as a fortification against Rohingya Muslim extremist insurgents. Construction of military establishments and roads sprawled throughout northern Rakhine and along the border with Bangladesh. The build-up was accompanied by compulsory labor, land and property confiscation and forced relocation, as well as rape, summary executions and physical torture. Mosques were destroyed, religious activities were banned and Muslim leaders were harassed. Consequently, the Rohingya population has been streaming out of Burma into the neighboring countries for decades.


Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Today, according to the Arakan Historical Society (AHS), there are some 200,000 more Rohingyas living in Pakistan and 500,000 more live in Saudi-Arabia.[4] A vast majority of them however live in Bangladesh which shares a border with Burma on the south-east frontier.


The exodus of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh has been going on since the late sixties, but the most recent influx was in 1992 when 250,000 of them crossed the border as a direct consequence of the discriminatory policies of the Burmese military regime (SPDC) and the large-scale human rights violations that have been committed by the border police (NaSaKa). In response to this situation, 20 refugee camps were constructed in south-eastern Bangladesh. According to the official estimates of the Bangladesh government, there are approximately 21,000 Rohingyas remaining in Bangladesh country. They are recognized refugees by UNHCR and the Bangladeshi authorities, and could officially only be repatriated to Burma voluntarily. UNHCR is responsible for the voluntary repatriation process and the protection of the refugees in the camps. A few international organizations such as WFP, MSF and Concern render practical assistance to these refugees, including food and health care.


From and since 1992, however, large populations of Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh who live in and around the south and south-eastern parts of the country. Nongovernmental officials place the figure much higher at anything between 100,000 to 350,000. They are not recognized and are seen by UNHCR and the Government of Bangladesh as ‘illegal immigrants’. Many doubt if this is really true, and blame the government and UNHCR for not being willing to conduct a new investigation as to why the refugees came to Bangladesh. Almost all international actors believe that these refugees certainly had political reasons to leave Burma, because of the continuing oppression. These people usually work in the informal sector as illegal, low-paid laborers and are extremely vulnerable to harassment by local people and police. A few hundred Rohingyas, most of them residing illegally, are currently detained. Some were arrested for petty criminal offences, but more often only because of their ‘illegality’ or false accusations made by mahjees[5] or local police. Especially the non-recognized Rohingyas in detention do not receive any legal assistance, and are often still detained although they should have already been released. In addition, there is concern with regard to the situation of illegal refugees in the newly established Teknaf ‘makeshift camp’. More then 4,000 refugees live there under abominable conditions with no access to food or medical aid.[6]


UNHCR and the Rohingyas

UNHCR is responsible for the protection and eventual, only voluntary, repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma. Until now, UNHCR has also been responsible for their welfare and has therefore signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the International NGOs: Concern and Medicins Sans Frontier (MSF). WFP is responsible for providing food in both camps. WFP cooperates with the local NGO, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), which actually transports the food from three warehouses to the camps. During the distribution of the food to the refugees, there is always a representative of Concern or MSF monitoring this to prevent any unfair practices. Distribution of food to all refugees in the camps is actually performed by volunteers who are refugees who receive extra food in return for their services.


MSF and Concern are responsible for the health care of pregnant and feeding women and children under 10 years of age, in Nayapara (MSF) and Kutupalong (Concern). Concern is also trying to extend its current small-scale skills training programs for women. Concern is finally responsible for a few more programs in both camps such as tree plantations and primary education. The Bangladesh Ministry of Health (MoH) is responsible for the health care of all other refugees in the camps.


The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) of the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MDMR) are officially responsible for safety, law, and order in the camps. In both camps, RRRC has actually stalled a so-called Camp in Charge (CiC), who are the leading officials for daily affairs.


The Repatriation Program

UNHCR has developed a proposal for a rapid repatriation program of the Rohingya refugees to Burma by the end of 2003 and wind down the range of services it offers in the two camps. It cites the lack of adequate funding as one of the reasons behind its need to limit its operations and also insists that the situation in the Arakan state has improved substantially to allow refugees to return to their own land. In the repatriation section of its proposal, it has strong support from the Bangladesh government which has been engaging in dialogue with the government of Burma to facilitate the return of the Rohingyas.


Under this new proposal which is under consideration by the government of Bangladesh, UNHCR has begun conducting repatriation of Rohingya families to Burma since the middle of 2003. The process begins with providing the government of Burma with the names of registered refugees for clearance purposes; that is, the Burmese government authenticates as to whether these individuals were in fact citizens of Burma. Meanwhile, UNHCR begins a process of 'counseling' the refugees which involves, according to the local officials, providing the refugees with information about the improvement of the situation in Arakan and informing them that their situation will become better if they return to their homeland rather than what they are experiencing in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Once the clearance comes through, the refugees sign (or put finger-prints) on affidavits which serve as their identification cards. The affidavits declare that these refugees are being repatriated based on their own will and set out personal details. Once the affidavits are cleared by the UNHCR officials, the refugees are taken across the Naf river on boats to Burma accompanied by officials from UNHCR. They are met on the Burmese side by UNHCR officers and representatives from the Burmese government. The affidavits are handed over to the latter. According to UNHCR, these affidavits are an additional security for the repatriated Rohingyas since they now have some formal documentation of their identities which were previously denied to them.


UNHCR’s Proposal for Self-Sufficiency

In addition to the repatriation program, UNHCR has also proposed to stimulate ‘selfsufficiency’ for the remaining, recognized Rohingya refugees in the camps. According to UNHCR is responsible for the protection and eventual, only voluntary, repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Burma. Until now, UNHCR has also been responsible for their welfare and has therefore signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the International NGOs: Concern and Medicins Sans Frontier (MSF). WFP is responsible for providing food in both camps. WFP cooperates with the local NGO, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), which actually transports the food from three warehouses to the camps. During the distribution of the food to the refugees, there is always a representative of Concern or MSF monitoring this to prevent any unfair practices. Distribution of food to all refugees in the camps is actually performed by volunteers who are refugees who receive extra food in return for their services.


MSF and Concern are responsible for the health care of pregnant and feeding women and children under 10 years of age, in Nayapara (MSF) and Kutupalong (Concern). Concern is also trying to extend its current small-scale skills training programs for women. Concern is finally responsible for a few more programs in both camps such as tree plantations and primary education. The Bangladesh Ministry of Health (MoH) is responsible for the health care of all other refugees in the camps.


The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) of the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief (MDMR) are officially responsible for safety, law, and order in the camps. In both camps, RRRC has actually stalled a so-called Camp in Charge (CiC), who are the leading officials for daily affairs.UNHCR, this is partly because of ‘donor fatigue’ resulting in decreasing funds for UNHCR’s programs in Bangladesh. The role of international organizations will be decreased, according to the plan, and the role of the Government of Bangladesh needs to become prominent. UNHCR itself plans to phase out all assistance by the end of 2004.[7] As a first step, UNHCR will hand over the actual repatriation process to the Government of Bangladesh by the first of July, although UNHCR stresses that it will remain responsible for monitoring the voluntary aspect of repatriations. Although all international parties directly and indirectly involved are willing to cooperate with a plan to promote self-sufficiency, they all complained about the complete lack of informationand consultation by UNHCR. This results in serious uncertainties among the organizations about what to do in the near future. All parties are extremely worried about the fate of the refugees when international organizations are no longer able to play a ‘night watcher’s role’, to prevent any further increasing pressure on, or force toward, refugees to repatriate. In addition, the fact that the Government of Bangladesh does not recognize the UNHCR plan is a matter of serious concern. Even worse, UNHCR has never consulted the refugees about the plan. It seems therefore extremely unclear whether for example UNHCR’s time frame to implement the plan is realistic, and whether basic safety and even survival guarantees are included in UNHCR’s current plan.


In the third part of the proposal, UNHCR has dictated that it will ‘streamline’ the health care in the camps by 1 July 2003. Currently, MSF, Concern and the Bangladeshi Ministry of Health (MoH) are responsible for health care. UNHCR wants MoH to take on this responsibility. Again, there has not been any consultation and serious discussions about it with the involved parties. Moreover, many directly and indirectly involved parties have serious doubts whether MoH is capable (and even willing!) to guarantee the current quality level of care currently provided by NGOs.


Repatriation Pressure on the Rohingyas

Despite the statements made by UNHCR that the process of repatriation is largely error free and fair to the concerned individuals, the refugees themselves as well as international

parties complain about Bangladeshi camp authorities who are pressing the refugees to sign for reptriation back to Arakan/Burma. It is alleged that a number of refugees were probably repatriated because of increased, direct or indirect pressure by camp authorities. According to the 2003 report issued by Burma Center Netherlands, refugees feel constant

pressure by camp authorities or the mahjees. Mahjees are camp group leaders that maintain close contact with camp authorities. Nowadays, almost all refugees are reluctant to repatriate because of fear about the Burmese military’s oppression. In recent weeks and months, the pressure on the refugees to repatriate has increased. May 2003 saw a significant increase in the repatriation of refugees to Burma. In May, 704 refugees were repatriated. The atmosphere has grown increasingly tense now. This causes doubt and serious concern. Large numbers of refugees have openly stated to be against repatriation back to Burma because of the grave military oppression in the country.


UNHCR in Bangladesh plays down complaints regarding the use of force and pressure by camp authorities and mahjees, and does not seem to understand that many international parties, as well as vast numbers of refugees, feel that the current oppressive policy, violence, and ongoing human rights violations remain serious and are mounting in Burma. UNHCR, as was mentioned earlier, also minimizes the actual oppression in Arakan, Burma. This oppression has been described, for example, in a number of reports by ILO, United States Department of State, and Human Rights Watch published over the last twelve months.


When questioned about the issue of forced repatriation, UNHCR insisted that although there might have been individual cases which were effectively dealt with after investigation of the events, there is no pressure being applied to the refugees to return to Arakan. UNHCR's opinion on the possibility of forced repatriation of the refugees to Burma completely contradicts all comments made by all other local, international and Burmese parties involved, as well as the statements made by a number of individual refugees. And although, of course, it could be possible that some individuals exaggerate the actual situation, it was obvious that UNHCR does not regard the consistent coercive pressure it applies to the refugees even during the counseling sessions as a problem. According to reports issued by the Burma Center Netherlands and Refugees International, the Rohingyas have and are experiencing intense pressure from the camp authorities to repatriate.


According to Burma Center Holland's report on the current situation of the camps, the mahjees (group leaders) use different methods to press them to sign the affidavit and to sign that they are willing to repatriate 'freely.' For example sometimes the mahjees fabricate false accusations against the refugees, some mentioned that the mahjees used physical or psychological violence and others said that the mahjees and 'volunteers' prevent 'unwilling' refugees from getting sufficient rations or materials to repair their sheds. It is obvious that the mahjees have a good relationship with the camp authorities (CiC), that they monitor the activities of the refugees and tell the CiC about this. Refugees often feel afraid to complain to UNHCR's Protection Officer, who is formally responsible for handling such problems or allegations.


SRI does not doubt that there are refugees who are willing to return to their own country and that they are being repatriated without undue pressure from UNHCR officials and/or officers of the Bangladesh government. However the allegations of forced repatriations and the alleged use of force and coercion to make the refugees return to Arakan, especially when there seems to be little evidence that the situation there has improved considerably, is of serious concern and should be further investigated and monitored by independent organizations and of the international community. SRI is sympathetic of the Bangladesh government with regard to internal strain on resources with huge influxes of Burmese refugees in a country that is currently overpopulated. However, SRI is critical of the stance that the government has taken on the rapid repatriation program. In addition, SRI wishes to express deep concern about UNHCR's method for handling the refugee crisis without ensuring that the refugees being returned to Arakan will be protected from further oppressive policies and targeted violence or other serious human rights violations by the Burmese military government. SRI is also concerned about the stark absence of other international organizations in deciding the future of the refugees. Without allowing WFP, Concern and MSF to play substantial roles in the camps, a very relevant 'night watchers role' is missing, possibly further increasing pressure on the refugees to repatriate to Burma against their will. Finally, SRI is concerned about the conditions of the many refugees who are outside of the official camps and who are denied access to medical or food aid by INGOs.



In light of the situation concerning UNHCR and the Rohingya refugees, SRI recommends the following:


1. The Government of Bangladesh should urgently allow UNHCR and INGOs to give assistance to the refugees in Teknaf ‘makeshift camp’ Tal) as soon as possible;


2. The international donor community should increase their financial and logistical support to UNHCR and WFP-programmes to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as long as there is no significant positive change in Arakan, Burma;


3. UNHCR should openly communicate with all involved IOs and NGOs such as WFP, MSF and Concern, regarding its “self-sufficiency” program for recognized refugees and start a real consultation process which should especially include the refugees involved, guarantee a ‘safety net’ during the transition period and continue to allow international organizations to aid the refugees and play a ‘night watcher’s role’;


4. UNHCR should seriously consult all involved actors (especially Concern and MSF), to actively cooperate with them for the implementation of any new plans with regard to its plan to ‘streamline’ the health care in the camps;


5. Bangladeshi authorities should address the following:

a. Halt current pressure on refugees to repatriate;

b. Investigate and remedy forced repatriation by camp authorities in the two official refugee camps;

c. Immediately release all non-criminal refugees from detention;

d. Immediately release all refugees which have finished their term; and

e. Provide legal assistance to all refugees in detention;


6. Call upon the Government of Burma to stop its oppression (including forced labour, lack of religious freedoms and lack of freedom of movement) and discriminatory policy towards the peoples in Arakan in general and the Rohingya-Muslims particularly.



For further information please consult the following articles:

1, Burma’s Rohingyas: The fate of one forgotten community in Bangladesh; Veronika Martin and Kavita Shukla; Refugees International.

2. Burmese Rohingyas in Bangladesh Face Uncertain Future; Veronika Martin and Kavita Shukla; Refugees International.

3. Lack of Protection Plagues Burma’s Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh.

4. Rohingya Muslims: Problems and Suggested Action Program; Mohammed Burhan Uddin; Bangladesh Public Administration Training Center; Savar, Dhaka; June 2000.

5. UNHCR Bangladesh – Country Report; January 1- December 31, 2002

6. 10 Years for the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Future

7. Persecuted Muslims Fear Deportation to Military Burma; December 3, 2002


SRI wishes to thank the following for assistance with its research:

1. Refugee Counseling Service Unit (RCSU), UNHCR Project, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

2. Concern International, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

3. Medicins Sans Frontier; Dhaka Bangladesh.

4. National Defence College, Mirpur Cantonment, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

5. UNHCR, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

6. Bangladesh Public Administration Training Center.

7. Department of Political Science, Dhaka University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.


[1] This report was prepared by Tazreena Sajjad, Asia Researcher, Survivors’ Rights International, Inc. onsite in Bangladesh.


[2] SRI met with UNHCR officials, officials from the Ministry of Relief and Disaster Management, journalists, academics, international organizations such as Medicins Sans Frontier (MSF) and Concern International which has been working with the Rohingyas for over ten years as well as with local people in the Teknaf region and the refugees themselves. Access to international organizations was not difficult to obtain and neither was it extremely challenging to talk to civil society about the Rohingyas, the situation in the state of Arakan and the current UNHCR policy. However, it was evident that UNHCR was hesitant to discuss its current proposal and the allegations of abuse against the Rohingyas by camp officials with a representative of an international organization; and given the recent criticisms leveled by Refugees International and Burma Center Holland against UNHCR.


Interesting to note was that both officials from the government and UNHCR echoed that the situation in Arakan had improved since 1992 and that most of the reasons for the influx of refugees are now not as prominent. UNHCR also stated that the international presence of NGOs and the eye of the international community have played significant roles to mitigate the level of oppression in the state of Arakan and that it is now a safe place for the refugees to return to. UNHCR further emphasized its shortage of funds to continue with most of its programs which it has proposed to hand over to the government of Bangladesh, a suggestion highly criticized by other international organizations that have been working on the ground for years and believe that despite funding cuts, it would be a disaster to hand over services such as health and education to the already overtaxed government.


One of the trickiest areas of investigation revolved around the area of allegations of harassment and abuse by camp officials (both government and UNHCR) to coerce Rohingyas to return to their homeland. Government officials thoroughly denied any such allegations, and UNHCR insisted that any such allegation has been investigated thoroughly and except for one or two rare cases, the repatriation process has been going fairly smoothly. In addition, they insisted that no one was being coerced to return and that the signing of affidavits and constant consultation and counseling with the refugees were ensuring that those who were reluctant to leave were being given the support to decide independently whether to return to Arakan or other areas of Burma.


One of the most frustrating points of the investigation involved gaining clearance to visit the camps at Nayapara and Kutapalong in Teknaf. It was evident from the beginning that criticisms from the outside had made UNHCR reluctant to allow outsiders to enter the area. The organization insisted that a permit was required by the government of Bangladesh to do so, while the latter stated that approval of the former was needed to visit the refugee camps. During an interview with an international organization, it was stated that the policy regulations for entering the camps had changed and that one other international organization required clearance from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to visit the Rohingya camps.


The overall general impression that was obtained especially during the interviews was that the Rohingyas had overstayed their welcome in Bangladesh and it was time to ensure that they returned to Burma. Both UNHCR and the government stressed funding issues and the latter brought up the problem of overpopulation in Bangladesh which was being further complicated by the presence of outsiders. Providing additional assistance to the Rohingyas, it was stated would encourage the people to stay, a cost the government could ill-afford. When asked about the cyclical flow of refugees, and how the government aimed to address people returning to Bangladesh illegally this time without official registration, the general response was that this was not a likely possibility in the near future. Given the deterioration of the political situation in Burma, this optimism seems short-sighted.


[3] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

[4] “Between the Crocodile and the Snake”, Burma Center Netherlands; May 2003

Group leaders in the Rohingya camps.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.