UN agency concerned about reported abuse as thousands continue to flee Myanmar

A recent arrival in Malaysia after the long and arduous boat trip from Myanmar's Rakhine state. She is seen here with her grandchildren. Photo: UNHCR/B.Baloch

10 June 2014 – The United Nations refugee agency said today it was receiving increasing reports of abuse and exploitation as people continue to seek safety overseas two years after inter-communal violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Several waves of clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, the first of which occurred in June 2012, have affected hundreds of thousands of families in the country’s western region.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 86,000 people have left on boats since the violence began two years ago, including nearly 15,000 from January to April this year.

“The majority are Rohingya, although anecdotally the proportion of Bangladeshis has grown this year,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.

Across the region, the agency continues to advocate for temporary stay arrangements for the Rohingya until the situation stabilizes sufficiently in Rakhine state for them to return.

“These arrangements involve acquiring the documented right to remain in the host country for the designated period, protection against arbitrary detention, respect for family unity, guarantees of shelter as well as access to services and lawful work opportunities,” said Mr. Edwards.

Some of those who have reached Thailand speak of being taken to smugglers' camps in the jungles or hills near the Thailand-Malaysia border. There they were kept for months in overcrowded camps and sometimes even cages until their families could pay for their release, according to UNHCR.

The Thai authorities have conducted several raids on these camps, rescuing hundreds of people, including some 500 Rohingya earlier this year. UNHCR is providing relief and advocating for a more clearly defined temporary protection regime during their stay in Thailand that would include, for example, access to education for the children and enhanced freedom of movement.

“Most immediately, to facilitate recovery and improve conditions of stay from the current immigration detention centres, we have offered to support rehabilitation centres where families can stay together and basic community activities can be organized while longer-term solutions are sought. The most vulnerable cases are submitted for consideration by resettlement countries,” Mr. Edwards said.

In Malaysia, where UNHCR has registered more than 35,000 Rohingya over the years, there have been increased reports of smuggling and trafficking from Thailand of people from Myanmar. Reliable reports indicate these groups frequently face abuse, ill-treatment, exploitation and extortion by smuggling gangs. An increasing number are in poor physical and emotional health – malnourished and unable to walk.

“UNHCR is advocating for the prompt release from detention of any detained Rohingya and others of concern,” said Mr. Edwards. “We also believe that improved access to health and other support services, including lawful employment opportunities, will allow refugees to be self-reliant.”

In Indonesia, the Rohingya now number more than 1,200 people. Registration numbers peaked during the second half of 2013 with 474 new arrivals after several boats arrived from Thailand; others also crossed over from Malaysia. This year the trend of arrivals has dropped to only 56 people up to May.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, which has hosted Rohingya refugees for more than two decades, there have been several positive developments in the last year. Education was extended to middle school level in the two official camps hosting more than 30,000 Rohingya refugees.

“We have also enhanced efforts to address gender-based violence in the camps, including by facilitating the deployment of policewomen,” said Mr. Edwards. “In addition, the Government has also agreed to the improvement of services in the camps including shelter and livelihood opportunities.

UNHCR has welcomed the Bangladeshi Government’s initiative to “list” an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh.

The agency also noted that some 140,000 people remain displaced in Rakhine – the majority of them Rohingya, with smaller numbers of Rakhine, Kaman and other ethnicities. Aid workers have resumed humanitarian assistance following attacks on UN and non-governmental organization premises in Sittwe in late March.

“While UNHCR remains committed to providing temporary shelters, coordinating camp management and addressing a difficult protection situation, we are wary of activities that could entrench segregation and protracted displacement. The challenge is to move from an emergency phase towards durable solutions,” Mr. Edwards stated.

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