The government of Bangladesh should immediately remove its restrictions on international organizations providing life saving humanitarian aid to the more than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday. In addition, it should open its borders to Rohingyas seeking to flee Rakhine State, it said.
In late July 2012, the Bangladesh government ordered three prominent international aid organizations – Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), and Muslim Aid – to cease providing assistance to Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazaar and surrounding areas.
The government contends that the presence of aid groups in Cox’s Bazaar encourages Rohingya to come to Bangladesh, and that it cannot afford to host them. The government accused the three aid groups of encouraging the Rohingyas’ flight by providing medical and other assistance. It also raised concerns about criticisms of Bangladesh in the international media.
However, as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Bangladesh is prohibited from denying those within its borders, including refugees and asylum seekers, access to food and healthcare, among other protections, said HRW.
In a July 28 media interview, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh disavowed any responsibility for the Rohingya, claiming the responsibility was with the Burmese government.
“Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country,” Hasina said. “We cannot bear this burden.” She denied that Rohingya were being forced back to Burma, saying, “It isn’t true, [the border guard force] didn’t force them. They persuaded them that they should go back to their own country, and they went back.” In the same interview, she added the Burma authorities are “creating a congenial atmosphere” and “providing all the [needed] assistance and everything” to the Rohingya.
In June, the Bangladesh foreign minister, Dipu Moni, told a news conference in Dhaka that, “It is not in our interest that new refugees come from Myanmar [Burma].”
The three aid organizations provide water, healthcare, sanitation, and other basic assistance to Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Bangladesh. Approximately 30,000 Rohingya who are officially recognized refugees are living in two camps; 40,000 who are unregistered live in a makeshift refugee camp, and the remaining 130,000 live in surrounding areas. All of the settlements are squalid and overcrowded.
Seasoned aid workers have told Human Rights Watch that the conditions in the makeshift camps for Rohingya are among the worst they have seen anywhere in the world.
“Bangladesh authorities are placing the lives of Rohingya refugees at grave risk by forcing aid groups to stop their feeding and health programs,” HRW said. “It is unthinkable that the government would actively attempt to make the terrible conditions faced by Rohingya even worse by stopping aid from reaching them.”
The communal violence in Burma broke out in early June displacing over 100,000 people. United Nations agencies still lack full and unfettered access to all affected areas of Arakan State, said HRW.
While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, customary international law establishes the obligation of governments to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which holds that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened. Bangladesh also is a party to several treaties – including the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – that provide that no one, including refugees and asylum seekers, should be returned to a place where they face a genuine risk of being subjected to torture.