Bangladesh Rebuffs UN Call to Accept Myanmar Clash Victims

Bangladesh dismissed calls from the United Nations refugee agency to accept people fleeing violence that has claimed dozens of lives in neighboring Myanmar.

“It is certainly not in the best of our interests to allow in a further influx of refugees,” Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters in Dhaka yesterday, responding to reports that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged the country to provide a safe haven. “We want to make sure that refugees don’t enter Bangladesh in large numbers again.”

Myanmar declared a state of emergency on June 10 in western Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh, in a bid to end clashes between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas that erupted a week earlier. Bangladesh authorities have turned back boats carrying hundreds of Rohingyas, including women and children who traveled for as long as nine hours without food and water.

Bangladesh is seeking to avoid a repeat of influxes in previous decades that have left more than 200,000 Rohingyas living in or around makeshift camps. The UNHCR said in December that its ability to address the issue of Rohingyas in Bangladesh has been “particularly challenging” and the country is “not well placed to cope with this protracted refugee situation.”

‘Very Concerned’

The UNHCR yesterday said it was “very concerned” about reports Bangladesh had turned away people fleeing violence and sought a clarification from authorities. The UN agency asked Bangladesh to allow people in need of safety and immediate medical assistance to enter the country.

“Previously people have been allowed in to Bangladesh for medical treatment,” the UNHCR said in a statement. “We hope that such good practices will be maintained.”

The unrest began after an alleged rape prompted a mob of about 300 Rakhine Buddhists to murder 10 Muslims on June 3, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Myanmar imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in four towns in Rakhine and prohibited more than five people from gathering in public areas at a time, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

“Bangladesh is putting lives at grave risk,” Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday. “Bangladesh has an obligation under international law to keep its border open to people fleeing threats to their lives and provide them protection.”

The clashes killed 21 people and left 1,662 houses burned down from June 8 to June 11, the Associated Press reported, citing state media. Myanmar President Thein Sein said in a national address on June 10 that uncontrolled violence may hamper the government’s ability to proceed with democratic reforms that prompted the U.S. and European Union to suspend sanctions this year.

Not Recognized

Moves toward greater political freedom after about five decades of military rule have attracted investors to Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest nations. The outbreak of violence in Rakhine underscores the challenge of unifying the country of 64 million people, which has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups -- a list that excludes the Rohingyas.

Bangladesh border guards and the nation’s coastguard prevented 500 Rohingya Muslims from entering the country in 11 boats two days ago, Major Shafiqur Rahman said. Most were women and children who lacked food and water, he said by phone on June 11.

‘Best of Relations’

Bangladesh and Myanmar “enjoy the best of relations” and “are maintaining close consultations to ensure that developments in the Rakhine state do not have any trans-boundary spillover,” Bangladesh Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Monirul Islam Kabir said in a statement yesterday.

Rohingyas, Sunni Muslims who are descended from Arab traders, are prevented from obtaining citizenship and traveling freely throughout Myanmar, according to Human Rights Watch. About 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar and 200,000 are in Bangladesh, the group estimates.

Bangladesh saw influxes of about 250,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 1978 and in the early 1990s, followed by repatriation efforts “that were not wholly voluntary,” the UNHCR’s policy development and evaluation service said in a December report.

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