Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees pushed back to Burma where they face collective punishment - new testimony

Survivors give harrowing accounts of Burma’s security forces firing at villagers from helicopter gunships, torching hundreds of homes, raping women and girls

‘I saw with my own eyes how the military burned down our village, and how soldiers raped women and girls’ – Rohingya man who had fled to Bangladesh from Burma

Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers detained and forcibly returned

Severe lack of water, food and medical care

Thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who have made it across the border from Burma to Bangladesh in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, are being forcibly pushed back to Burma where they are facing mass punishment, Amnesty International said today.

The Rohingya have been fleeing collective punishment in Burma’s Northern Rakhine state, where security forces are mounting indiscriminate reprisal attacks in response to a 9 October assault on three border posts that killed nine members of the Burmese border police.

Speaking to members of the Rohingya community in Bangladesh and still in Burma, Amnesty has documented accounts of Burma’s security forces, led by the military, firing at villagers from helicopter gunships, torching hundreds of homes, carrying out arbitrary arrests, and raping women and girls.

The Burmese government has denied all allegations of human rights violations by its military, but at the same time has blocked access to humanitarian aid and effectively barred independent journalists and human rights monitors from entering the area.

Across the Naf river that divides Bangladesh and others Burma, in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers has been forced into hiding and are suffering from a severe lack of food and medical care. Many of those arriving are in extremely poor health and in need of medical attention. Sources confirmed that several people crossed the border with untreated bullet wounds. Yet the Rohingya said that they did not seek medical attention at the few clinics in the area out of fear of being detained and deported. 

The Bangladeshi authorities have cracked down on the flow of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers from Burma over the past week, and the Bangladeshi Border Guards have detained and forcibly returned hundreds. The move is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement – an absolute prohibition under international law over forcibly returning people to a country or place where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations.

Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, said:

“The Rohingya are being squeezed by the callous actions of both the Burmese and Bangladesh authorities. Fleeing collective punishment in Burma, they are being pushed back by the Bangladeshi authorities. Trapped between these cruel fates, their desperate need for food, water and medical care is not being addressed.

“The response of the army to the attacks on security forces six weeks ago, went far beyond what was necessary and proportionate. Instead of investigating and arresting specific suspects, the army carried out operations amounting to collective punishment.

“The Bangladeshi government must not add to the suffering of Rohingya. They should be recognised and protected as refugees fleeing persecution, not punished for who they are.

“Relying on the generosity of Bangladeshis already in poverty and long-term refugees is not sustainable. The thousands who have crossed the border desperately need help. The Bangladeshi authorities must immediately allow aid groups unfettered access to those fleeing the escalating persecution in Burma.”

Testimony from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh

The bulk of the Rohingya who successfully reached Bangladesh have sought shelter in makeshift camps across the Cox’s Bazar where earlier waves of refugees and asylum-seekers have settled. Water and food are scarce and an aid workers in the area told Amnesty that even before the most recent arrivals, the camp dwellers were already suffering severe malnutrition. The latest arrivals have put an enormous strain on Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers already based in Bangladesh who have opened their small and cramped homes to them. One man living in the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp told Amnesty:

 “I am the only breadwinner in my family. We are seven people, but some family members arrived from Burma last week so now we are 15 people living in the same small hut. We did not have any food this morning. I only own two longyis [traditional garment] – I gave one to my cousin, I am wearing the only clothes I own.”

A 40-year-old woman, who said she had fled to Bangladesh after the Burmese army killed her husband and one of her sons, was not able to find shelter in the camp for herself and her two young children. “We are sleeping outside in the mud,” she said. “My son is two years old and is crying all the time, he is very cold in the mornings. Still, compared to Burma, Bangladesh seems like heaven to me.” 

While many Bangladeshi people have welcomed and offered assistance to the new arrivals, the Rohingya are preyed upon by local thieves. “When we crossed the border, some local people attacked and looted us. They took everything we had,” said one 16-year-old girl, who paid people smugglers to take her into Bangladesh on 21 November. 

Testimony on military abuses in Burma

A Rohingya villager in Burma told Amnesty how security forces approached his village, firing guns in the air, creating panic:

“Then they shot at people who were fleeing. They surrounded the village and started going from house to house. They were verbally abusing the people. They were threatening to rape the women saying ‘We are going to rape your kalar women’.” “Kalar” or “foreigner” is a racial epithet used against the Rohingya community.

A woman who spoke to Amnesty from Burma described how her two sons were arbitrarily arrested by security forces:

“It was early in the morning, the military surrounded our house, while some came in and forced me and my children to go outside. They tied my two sons up. They tied their hands behind their backs, and they were beaten badly. The military kicked them in the chest. I saw it myself. I was crying so loudly. When I cried, they [the military] pointed a gun at me. My children were begging the military not to hit them. They were beaten for around 30 minutes before being taken away.”  She hasn’t seen or heard from them since.

A 38-year-old man, who spoke to Amnesty in Bangladesh after arriving on Tuesday, said:

“My sister and brother were both kidnapped by the army. I saw with my own eyes how the military burned down our village, and how soldiers raped women and girls.” 

A 44-year-old woman said she witnessed how the army arrested and handcuffed young men in her village, shot them dead and pushed them into mass graves. She also said the army used hand-held rocket launchers, echoing reports from several other eyewitnesses about the use of such weapons and actions. Another man, 58, told Amnesty in Bangladesh he fled across the border after helicopter gunships opened fire on his and surrounding villages: “We saw helicopters firing on the village. We ran into the forest to save our lives.”

Forty years of Rohingya in Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived into Bangladesh from Burma in successive waves since at least the 1970s. There are some 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar’s two camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara. The Bangladesh government has refused to grant refugee status to Rohingya arriving from Burma since 1992.  A further estimated 300,000 - 500,000 undocumented Rohingya are living in Bangladesh, spread out in the two makeshift camps close to Kutupalong and Leda, as well as villages and towns across the southeast of the country. With no legal protection, the undocumented Rohingya are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Limited employment opportunities mean that many are forced into the drug trade or human trafficking to earn an income. Incidents of rape and other sexual violence against undocumented Rohingya women are frequent, since they are considered “easy targets” who cannot report crimes to police for fear of being arrested themselves.

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