Growing alarm over Rohingya crisis
Of the 400,000 Muslims who have fled Burma in recent weeks, 240,000 are children
TUMBRU, BANGLADESH— Days after fleeing their village on the Burmese side of the border fence, a group of Rohingya Muslims watched from just inside Bangladesh as yet another house went up in flames.
“You see this fire today,” said Farid Alam, one of the Rohingya who watched the fire burn from about 500 metres away. “That is my village.”
The villagers said they had escaped days ago, crossing into Bangladesh at the border point of Tumbru and joining thousands of other ethnic Rohingya huddling in the open in the district of Bandarban to escape recent violence in Buddhist-majority Burma.
When they crossed the border, they saw land mines that had been newly planted by Burmese forces, Alam said.
Thousands of Rohingya are continuing to stream across the border, with UN officials and others demanding that Burma halt what they describe as a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has driven nearly 400,000 Rohingya to flee in the past three weeks.
That number includes an estimated 240,000 children, UNICEF said in Geneva on Friday. Aid workers say more than half the Rohingya refugees who have fled Burma in the past three weeks have been children, including hundreds who travelled without family members.
As of Friday, UNICEF had counted 1,267 children at the camp who had been separated from their families.
Amid the disorder of the rapidly expanding refugee settlements in Bangladesh, the unaccompanied children are at particular risk for human trafficking, sexual abuse, child labour and child marriage, said Christophe Boulierac, a spokesperson for UNICEF.
UNICEF has set up 41 spaces for children to relax and play, some of which can be moved around the camps. The sites also make it easier for aid workers to identify which children have traveled alone or have been separated from their families.
The needs of the children include food and nutritional support, basic health care and psychological counseling. More than 18,000 children have received help through the childfriendly spaces since Aug. 25.
But with more than 230,000 children estimated to have arrived in Bangladesh, many more will need help, Boulierac said.
The UN Population Fund estimates that two-thirds of the refugees are women and girls, 13 per cent of whom are pregnant or breast-feeding. It has sent dozens of midwives to help in the refugee camps.
And the numbers are likely to grow, Boulierac said. “The worrying news is we don’t see any indication that this influx is decreasing.”
Ethnic Rohingya have long faced discrimination in Burma and are denied citizenship, though many families have lived there for generations.
After a Rohingya insurgent group attacked police posts in Burma’s Rakhine state on Aug. 25, the military responded with “clearance operations.” Fleeing Rohingya say security forces shot indiscriminately, burned their homes and threatened them with death.
The government says hundreds died, mostly Rohingya, and that 176 out of 471 Rohingya villages are now abandoned.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described the violence against Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing” — a term that describes an organized effort to rid an area of an ethnic group by displacement, deportation or killing.
Amnesty International said Thursday it has evidence of an “orchestrated campaign of systematic burnings” by Burmese security forces targeting dozens of Rohingya villages over the past three weeks.
Human Rights Watch said Friday that 62 villages in Rakhine had been targeted in arson attacks since Aug. 25.
“Our field research backs what the satellite imagery has indicated — that the Burmese military is directly responsible for the mass burning of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement Friday.
“We had a big house, we are 10 people in the family, but they burned our home,” Alam said as he watched the other house burning Friday. “My father was a village doctor, we had a medical store. We had land and cattle, all are gone.”
Abul Bashar, a 73-year-old Rohingya in Bandarban, said he travelled15 days on foot to reach Bangladesh on Wednesday and was separated from the rest of his family.
He took nothing with him as he fled.
“I have lost everything,” he said. “Our homes were burned . . . It was painful, very painful.” With files from the New York Times.
“Our field research backs what the satellite imagery has indicated — that the Burmese military is directly responsible for the mass burning of Rohingya villages.” PHIL ROBERTSON HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH