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Over 18,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh

Over 18,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh

COX’S BAZAAR: More than 18,000 Rohingya Muslims — many sick and some with bullet wounds — have fled the worst violence to grip northwest Myanmar in at least five years, while thousands more are stuck at the Bangladesh border or scrambling to reach it.

Coordinated attacks allegedly carried out by Rohingya militants on security forces in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the ensuing clashes, which began on Friday, triggered the Rohingya exodus, while the government evacuated thousands of Buddhists.

Since the attacks, about 18,445 Rohingya Muslims — mostly women and children — have been registered in Bangladesh, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Wednesday.

“They are in a very, very desperate condition,” said Sanjukta Sahany, who runs the IOM office in the southern town of Cox’s Bazaar near the border.

“The biggest needs are food, health services and they need shelter. They need at least some cover, some roofs over their heads.”

Sahany said that many crossed over “with bullet injuries and burn injuries”, and that aid workers reported that some refugees “gave a blank look” when questioned. “People are traumatised, which is quite visible.”

The United Nations, while condemning the militant attacks, has pressured Myanmar to protect civilian lives without discrimination and appealed to Bangladesh to admit those fleeing the military counteroffensive.

At least 109 people have been killed in the fighting with militants, Myanmar alleges, most of them Rohingya Muslims but also members of the security forces and civilians.

The treatment of about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is the biggest challenge facing national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been accused by critics of not speaking out for a minority that has long complained of persecution.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and regarded as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots that date back centuries.

The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when a similar, but much smaller, series of alleged attacks on security posts prompted a fierce military response, in which the UN has said security forces probably committed crimes against humanity.

“The situation is very terrifying; houses are burning, all the people ran away from their homes, parents and children were divided, some were lost, some are dead,” said Abdullah, 25, a Rohingya from the region of Buthidaung, struggling to hold back tears.

He said that four of the six hamlets in his native district had been burned down by security forces, prompting all its residents to flee towards Bangladesh.

He was among the thousands of terrified people who left their villages to gather at the foot of the Mayu mountain range.

Together with his wife and five-year-old daughter, Abdullah brought sticky rice, fetched plastic sheets and empty water bottles, preparing to trek in monsoon rain for days on a 20-km route through the mountains to the border.

“I am waiting for all of my relatives to leave together with my family as soon as possible,” he added.

Bangladesh is already host to more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since the early 1990s.

Dhaka has asked the UN to pressure Myanmar over its treatment of the Muslim minority, saying it could not take any more refugees.

At least 4,000 people have been stranded in no man’s land between the two countries, with temporary shelters stretching for several hundred metres on a narrow strip between the Naf river and Myanmar’s border fence.

On Tuesday, reporters saw women, some carrying children and sick people, wade through the river, which narrows to less than 10 metres there. Bangladeshi border guards allowed groups of about six to cross to reach a stack of donated medicines.

Many Rohingya Muslims trying to cross over were sick and at least six died after doing so, one aid worker said, adding that some refused to seek help for fear of being caught and sent back.

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2017

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