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Persecuted in Two Countries, Burmese Refugees Face Starvation in Bangladesh Camps

For Immediate Release

Cambridge, MA — Stateless refugees from Burma face death from starvation and disease in makeshift camps because the government of Bangladesh denies them access to humanitarian aid, warns a team of health researchers from Physicians for Human Rights who just returned from the region.

In a survey of 100 households at one camp conducted Feb. 11-13, they documented that more than 18% of children below age 5 suffered from acute malnutrition. Child malnutrition rates above 15% indicate a “critical” situation, according to the World Health Organization. More than half the children had had diarrhea in the past 30 days – a reflection of the camp's unsanitary conditions. Many refugees reported that they had not eaten for two days.

In a 25-page report released today, PHR calls on the government of Bangladesh to immediately stop arresting refugees and forcing them back across the border. It also sounds an alarm about an ominous campaign of ethnic incitement conducted by Bangladeshi authorities. The report calls for a comprehensive regional response to the Bangladesh government's failure to protect and care for the refugees, as well as to the human rights violations in Burma that have caused some 300,000 Muslim minority Rohingya to flee that country.

“It is unconscionable to leave this vulnerable population stateless and starving,” says Richard Sollom, PHR's Director of Research and Investigations. “Immediate steps are needed to prevent further malnutrition, disease, and death.”

In February, the PHR team conducted an emergency health assessment in the makeshift Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh, just across the border from Burma. Sollom and his colleague, emergency physician Parveen Parmar from Harvard University, described camp conditions as among the worst they had ever seen, with people housed in ramshackle huts made of twigs and plastic sheeting, denied food aid, and living beside open sewers.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic minority — have crossed into Bangladesh since 1991 to escape persecution in Burma, where they have been subjected to systematic and widespread human rights violations, including summary executions, torture, state-sanctioned rape, arbitrary arrest, and forced labor.

The Bangladeshi government has only registered 28,000 Rohingya, who receive protection, humanitarian assistance, and food rations from UN agencies and international NGOs. But since 1993, the government has denied 200,000 subsequent Rohingya arrivals official refugee status, making them ineligible for UN aid and protection.

In recent months, the government of Bangladesh has stepped up its own persecution of the Rohingya, possibly in an effort to discourage an influx of new arrivals in the run-up to elections in Burma later this year. The PHR team interviewed 25 refugees, some of whom were among the hundreds who have been rounded up, beaten, and forcibly expelled from the country over the past several months.

The PHR emergency report on the humanitarian crisis, Starving and Stateless, calls on the government of Bangladesh immediately to cease the arbitrary arrest and forced expulsion of legitimate refugees from the country; to allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to provide relief to vulnerable refugee populations; and to condemn and prevent the campaign of ethnic hatred against Rohingya refugees.

The PHR report also calls on the Burmese government to stop its widespread human rights violations against ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. The report further urges the UN refugee agency to assert its mandate to protect and assist the unregistered Rohingya as a population of concern; to press the government of Bangladesh to allow humanitarian aid to flow unhindered to the Rohingya; and to launch a coordinated appeal to donor nations for humanitarian relief and protection for this neglected population.

“Thousands of Rohingya who fled intolerable persecution in Burma now face equally bleak conditions in Bangladesh, because the government there has refused to recognize their status as refugees,” says Sollom. “What will it take to get them the aid they need to survive?”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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