DHAKA / YANGON — Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled a strip of land on the border between Burma and Bangladesh after the two countries met to discuss resettling them, an official and a community leader said.
The United Nations refugee agency has expressed concern that some 5,300 people who were staying in the area — outside of Burma’s border fence but on Burma’s side of a creek that marks the international border — would be forcibly returned without due consideration for their safety.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled Burma for Bangladesh after insurgent attacks on 25 August sparked a military crackdown that the United Nation as has said amounted to ethnic cleansing, with reports of arson attacks, murder and rape.
Major Iqbal Ahmed, a senior Bangladesh border guard official, said on Tuesday evening that roughly half of the people who had been staying in the no man’s land had entered Bangladesh and made their way to refugee camps in Bangladesh in just over a week.
“They are leaving the place in fear,” Iqbal Ahmed told Reuters. “Now there are roughly 2,500-3,000 people in the no man’s land. We talked to some of them and asked them to go back, but they said they can’t.”
Local officials from the two sides met on 20 February and visited the area.
Dil Mohammed, a leader among the people who have been staying in the no man’s land, told Reuters that a meeting with community leaders promised by Burmese officials had not materialised, confirming that several hundred families had moved into Bangladesh since 20 February.
“We are in constant fear. We are not going to the camps,” he said, referring to temporary camps Burma has established to house possible returnees under a repatriation agreement it signed with Bangladesh in November.
“There’s no guarantee for life. We need security and all basic rights including citizenship like other communities are granted by the Myanmar government,” said Dil Mohammed.
Burmese government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters on Wednesday that the area was Burma’s territory.
“According to the rules they cannot stay there, 150 feet from the borderline. They stay there to create a situation where Myanmar security forces and government official will remove them.”
“The media, especially Reuters, and human rights organisations would put pressure and make accusations that they are being cleared,” he said. “It is a trap to put more pressure on Myanmar, to make more criticism of Myanmar.”
After the 20 February meeting, Zaw Htay was quoted in Burmese-language media saying some of the people staying in the border area were “terrorists” linked to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that attacked Burmese security posts on 25 August.
“We got information that terrorists are there,” Zaw Htay told Reuters. “This place will become a safe house or a haven for terrorists, and they can do terrorist acts on both sides.”