Wednesday 24 February 2010

UN examines mistreatment of Muslims in Myanmar

Source from The National 23 Feb 2010
BANGKOK // A United Nations envoy has expressed deep concern about the persecution of Myanmar's Muslims by the authorities. "There is no doubt that there is severe discrimination of Muslims," the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said after visiting the west of the country where Muslims are concentrated.
Tomas Quintana, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, has found evidence of discrimination against Muslims.

During his five-day mission, Mr Quintana, an Argentine former labour rights lawyer, visited Sittwe, capital of northern Rakhine state, and Buthidaung, one of the state's main towns and site of the most serious allegations of persecution and repression of the Muslims, often known as Rohingya. This is the first time a senior UN envoy has been allowed to visit this region although the UN and international aid organisations do have projects and people in the area.

"There have been many allegations levelled at the authorities, so it was important for me to be able to see the situation firsthand," he said. While he was there he also visited a prison, which was a real revelation, he said during an interview on the weekend. "The prison was full of women, some still nursing their young children," he said. Most had been charged with immigration offences and received sentences of up to five years. But human-rights groups believe they are victims of the government's ban on Muslims marrying.

"Men are often jailed for illegal marriages, but many, especially women, are arrested after travelling illegally [across the border] to Bangladesh to get married," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the situation of Rohingyas in the region. The UN envoy raised the issue of the alledged ban on marriage with the authorities, both locally and in the Myanmar capital, Naypidaw, and received the same answer. Muslims, like everyone, have the right to marry, but they have to have the correct birth certificates and citizenship papers.

This is the crux of the matter, according to human-rights groups and aid workers who know the area and monitor the situation there. "Myanmar's Muslim minority are subject to systematic persecution: they are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok.
"The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country," he said. More than 300,000 Rohingyas are in camps or hiding in neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the persecution across the river in Rakhine, according to the UN. More than 700,000 Rohingyas still live in Myanmar. Mr Quintana singled out Rakhine for his visit after persistent stories of persecution that included forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, travel restrictions, banned marriages and unregistered children. On his last visit to Myanmar, in 2009, his request to visit the area was denied.
Because the authorities refuse most Rohingyas permission to marry, many live together after a traditional Muslim ceremony. The children born from these couples are denied registration and citizenship - making them non-persons. Mr Quintana took up the issue of citizenless children in his last report to the UN in November and pressed representatives of the regime on it again during this visit, but with little result.
"The issue of unregistered children is serious as their numbers keep growing," Ms Lewa said. "What is the future of these children? Without being registered, they won't be able to apply for a travel permit, marriage, and so on. They are all potential refugees." Mr Quintana's visit to Rakhine was a significant concession by the regime. "I received a lot of independent information from various sources before I went there, and I find them very credible."

The envoy said he did not have time to verify all the claims in the reports, but from what he saw he believed they were relatively accurate. "And I hope by visiting there I can help highlight the plight of Myanmar's Muslims," he said. Overall, the UN envoy was downbeat about his trip. "Political prisoners, of which there are more than 2,100, will not be released anytime soon," he said. "The government continues to deny that there are any prisoners of conscience in their jails."

Mr Quintana wanted to impress upon the authorities that the release of all political prisoners before this years planned elections was essential if the electoral process was to be convincing. "These are well-educated and capable people who could participate in the election and help make the whole process credible, I told the authorities," he said. Mr Quintana did not hold out much hope of change in Myanmar in the near future.

Myanmarese officials would not discuss the elections in detail even though it was evident that preparations for the polls were already in full swing. All that the men in charge of the elections would say was that the legal framework was being prepared and the electoral law would be finished in time.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Nowhere to Turn

Source from Irrawaddy news magazine Vol.18 No.1, Jan 2010
A woman in leda refugee camp, one of the offcial camps in Cox’s Bazar. (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

Many homeless Rohingya prefer hunger in a hostile land to life in Burma

I’ve lost everything in my life and now I can only pray that I don’t get sent back to Burma,” said Haziqah, a 27-year-old Rohingya resident of the unofficial Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Before joining the camp, Haziqah lived in the Bandarban Hill Tract, about 150 km [93 miles] to the north, where many Rohingya refugees from Burma have settled. She and her husband managed to survive on the meager wages he earned from odd jobs in the area and were starting to hope they could lead a normal existence.

Rohingya men gather round to listen to Haziqah tell her story. (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

But then, one morning seven days after giving birth to her first child, soldiers from the Bangladeshi border force, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), stormed their village. Rounding up all the Rohingyas living there, they marched them toward the Bangladesh-Burma border.

During the march, she said, the soldiers beat her husband severely and pushed her along, ignoring the week-old baby in her arms. When they reached the top of a hill bordering Burma, the soldiers simply gave them a shove to send them back to the country from which they had fled.

In the chaos, she was separated from her husband; she later received reports that he had been captured by the Nasaka, the Burmese border force operating in Arakan State. She and some other women hired a boat to take them back to Bangladesh. By the time she arrived there her baby had died.

People in Kutupalong camp collect water from wells provided by Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger). (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

Similar stories of BDR brutality are told by new arrivals at the makeshift Kutupalong camp. Like Haziqah, many of the women have been separated from their husbands and must struggle to find food and look after their children.

Since tensions peaked in August between Bangladesh and Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council over the Burmese regime’s construction of a border fence, arrests and forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees dramatically increased. More than 5,000 Rohingyas were sent back to Burma in October and November.

Since the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Adha in Bangladesh at the end of November, a temporary halt appears to have been called to repatriations, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers employed in the camps.

It’s believed that a visit by a Dutch diplomat and three European humanitarian ambassadors may also have put pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to stop sending Rohingyas back to Burma.
However, despite fears that the repatriations will start again, families continue to flee to the unofficial camp, even though it receives no food aid, unlike the official camp next door. Three hundred families reportedly arrived at the Kutupalong camp in November.

The Bangladeshi government refuses to accept Rohingyas who arrived in the country after 1991 as refugees and instead labels them illegal migrants, leaving them to fend for themselves. If they find work in the surrounding area, they risk arrest.

Zawpe, a Rohingya leader in Kutupalong camp, said fear of arrest prevented many migrants leaving the camp in search of work.

“Because of the travel restrictions, conditions in the camp are very bad,” he said. “People are too afraid to go outside to find food. The food crisis is alarming.

“The government doesn’t let NGOs give us food, we are not allowed to work for food and the local communities don’t want us to, so we are starving. It’s 1 p.m. and most of the camp hasn’t eaten yet. If the situation continues like this, then people will die.”

Zawpe said migrants also risk being hunted down by Bangladeshis, who then hand them over to the authorities.

Living in a No-man's Land

Source from Irrawaddy news magazine Vol 18, No.1, Jan 2010

The Rohingya of northwestern Burma are fleeing to Bangladesh, where unofficial, makeshift refugee camps are rapidly expanding. The plight of the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh has grown worse during the past year.

Burmese authorities enforce a policy that promotes a form of ethnic cleansing, based on repressive regulations aimed at the Rohingya, who must apply for permission to move from one village to another, to repair local mosques, even to get married—rights that are routinely denied. They are excluded from jobs and other opportunities because of discrimination based on their Muslim religion. Thousands continue to flee to Bangladesh to find a better life, only to be isolated in crude, unofficial camps, such as the makeshift Kutupalong camp which has sprung up during the past year near Cox’s Bazar.

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Conditions are dire inside the camps. Refugees live with little humanitarian assistance. Rohingya seeking work are discriminated against by Bangladeshis, who often refuse to hire them or otherwise exploit them as a source of low-paid labor. In the unofficial camps, there are no medical services and drinking water is unsafe. Many Rohingya choose to flee the country by boat, risking a perilous sea voyage in a small boat at the mercy of pirates and smugglers.

To make matters worse, Burmese authorities have begun constructing a 200-kilometer [125-mile] fence along the border designed to prevent cross-border access. Meanwhile, the Rohingya say they are trapped in a no-man’s land and neither country offers them a way of life that provides freedom and opportunity.