Swelling populations in Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladeshi side of the Burmese border could result in widespread starvation as food aid reaching the camps remains inadequate.
The alarming prognosis was issued today by US-based humanitarian group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which in February carried out studies of 100 households in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh’s southern Cox’s Bazaar.
Up to 400,000 Rohingya, a Burmese Muslim minority, are thought to live in Bangladesh, having fled racial and religious persecution in Burma’s western Arakan state. Of these, however, only 28,000 are registered by the UN’s refugee agency.
The PHR report warned that “critical levels of acute malnutrition and a surging camp population without access to food aid will cause more deaths from starvation and disease if the humanitarian crisis is not addressed”.
Last month Bangladeshi police launched a crackdown against unregistered Rohingya in Cox’s Bazaar, which was then compounded by reported outbreaks of violence against refugees by local Bangladeshis in the area.
A Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) report last month said that people had arrived at clinics showing signs of machete attacks and rape.
The report said this was an attempt by police to stem the flow of refugees into camps, although observers there say that rudimentary camps have sprung up as increasing numbers of people are forced from their homes.
Those who haven’t managed to escape the crackdown are being pushed back across the border into Burma. The MSF said that some were being forced into the Naf river which separates Burma and Bangladesh.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly said that any repatriation to Burma must be voluntary, while PHR say the forced return is “in flagrant violation of the country’s human rights obligations”.
Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, which advocates for the Rohingya, said that the situation was getting worse.
Since the publication of the MSF report we find that 6000 people have moved into the camp, the crackdown continues and people are still being pushed back to the border,” she said, adding however that many were arriving at the camp already malnourished.
“People are not daring to leave the camps [to seek work and help] for fear of arrest or deportation.” She also said that the recent rape of a woman who was collecting firewood near to the camp had added to these fears.