Author Topic: Cablegate : Increasing Pressure On The Rohingya Refugees  (Read 1780 times)

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Cablegate : Increasing Pressure On The Rohingya Refugees
« on: April 17, 2014, 20:52:54 PM »
Cable reference id: #03ROME3583


Reference id aka Wikileaks id #9970  ?
SubjectIncreasing Pressure On The Rohingya Refugees In Cox's Bazar, Southern Bangladesh To Return To Burma - "(we're) Caught Between A Crocodile And A Snake" (burmese Refugee Quoted In An Msf Holland Report, 2003)
OriginEmbassy Rome (Italy)
Cable timeFri, 8 Aug 2003 04:46 UTC
  • Time unknown: Original unredacted version, leaked to Wikileaks
  • Fri, 26 Aug 2011 02:34: First publication, unredacted, however non-text content differs
  • Thu, 1 Sep 2011 23:24: Original unredacted version published, with HTML goodies
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.


TAGS: EAID [Foreign Economic Assistance], EAGR [Agriculture and Forestry], AORC [International Organizations and Conferences], PREF [Refugees], KUNR [UN Reform], WFP [World Food Program], UN [United Nations] 

SUBJECT: Increasing pressure on the Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh to return to Burma - "(We're) caught between a crocodile and a snake" (Burmese refugee quoted in an MSF Holland report, 2003)


1. (SBU) US/Mission Rome Humanitarian Attache visited two UNHCR-managed Rohingya refugee camps on July 29-30 - Kutupalong and Nayapara - located in Teknaf Thana (Cox's Bazar district, at the southernmost tip of Bangladesh directly bordering Burma) which house approximately 20,000 Burmese Muslims from Arakan (Rakhine) State in western Burma. He found increasing pressure tactics being employed by camp authorities and local officials to accelerate repatriation efforts, an attempt to marginalize the role of UNHCR's two most prominent international NGO partners (MSF- Holland and Irish Concern), and the UNHCR's in-country team in a phase-down, overtaken by events mode. He also observed a "make-shift camp/slum" located in the center of Teknaf town, occupied by approximately 4,500 Rohingya people dubbed "illegal intruders" who have been living there for the past 8-9 months under abominable conditions and who receive virtually no assistance. End summary. ---------- Background ---------- ¶

2. (SBU) US Mission/Rome Humanitarian Attache Tim Lavelle visited two UNHCR-managed Rohingya refugee camps on July 29- 30 - Kutupalong and Nayapara - located in Teknaf Thana (Cox's Bazar district, southern Bangladesh) which house approximately 20,000 Burmese Muslims from Arakan (Rakhine) State in western Burma. The Rohingyas in these camps (more than twenty such camps were established in the early 1990's which are now down to two) are officially recognized as refugees by UNHCR, which is directly responsible for their survival and safety. ¶

3. (SBU) In the period 1991-1992, approximately 250,000 Rohingya Muslims left Burma, victims of large-scale repression at that time. In addition to the camp populations cited above, an estimated minimum of 100,000 Rohingya presently live in the Cox's Bazar region and are considered illegal immigrants by the Bangladeshi government. This latter group has no rights, and no substantive help or assistance from anyone. ¶

4. (SBU) Both at present and historically, there is a clear policy of discrimination against the Rohingya in Burma. As per the 2002 State Department's Country Report on Human Rights in Burma: "Members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State, on the country's western coast, continued to experience severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The Government (has) denied citizenship to most Rohingya on the grounds that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule in 1824, as required by the country's highly restrictive citizenship law." Human Rights Watch (in their July 2002 Report entitled "Crackdown on Burmese Muslims") commented: "In Arakan state, a predominately Muslim area, human rights violations, including forced labor, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the destruction of mosques, have been commonplace." Note: US Mission officer met in Teknaf with an MSF-Holland (MSF-H) representative based in Arakan State who confirmed that these egregious practices were continuing - in addition to imposition of large "fees" for marriage and birth registration ("there are lots of villages where no one has married for several years"), arbitrary taxation, opaque licensing and monopoly schemes linked to land and water access, and frequent curfews. End note. ¶

5. (SBU) Reportedly in the first visit by the Burma Head of State to Bangladesh (Dhaka) in 20 years in December 2002, the subject of repatriation of Rohingyas was discussed. In April 2003 in Geneva, the Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary (Samser Mobin Chowdhury) reiterated Bangladesh's support to all efforts for Burmese refugees remaining in Bangladesh to return promptly to their homeland. Over the last several months, the Burmese Government has sent signals that all "constraints" on refugee return are now "off" and that authorities will now accept all refugee claims at "face value." ------------------------- Whither UNHCR Bangladesh? ------------------------- ¶

6. (SBU) UNHCR did a survey in Bangladesh at the end of 2002 which concluded that the majority of refugees in the Teknaf camps did not want to return for a variety of reasons. Some 5,000 expressed interest in returning but cited "complications." UNHCR Bangladesh then proceeded to produce (December 23) a concept paper (which still, in US Mission's understanding, remains in draft) entitled "Self-Sufficiency of Refugees From Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar in Bangladesh." This paper apparently commented on how refugees could be helped toward self-reliance using as a guiding principle the concept of Temporary Settlement (TS) in local Bangladeshi communities for refugees who would not opt for immediate repatriation. ¶

7. (SBU) Despite "scuttling" early on the TS idea as a non- starter, given the improved bilateral climate between the two concerned governments, UNHCR verbally promulgated a rolling strategy several months later which involved a phase- out of UNHCR material assistance by the end of 2003; and informed its two principal NGO partners (MSF-H and Irish Concern) of UNHCR's unilateral decision to have both NGOs hand over their respective health programs (health care for children under ten, including supplementary and therapeutic feeding) by July 1 to the Government's Ministry of Health (MOH). Note: At the time of the visit, the handover date had slipped to August 1, but it was evident that the MOH is not in a position to assume this substantive NGO workload any time soon. End note. ¶

8. (SBU) Additional note. In a subsequent meeting in Dhaka (July 31) with the UNHCR Country Representative, Ms. Machiko Kondo, US Mission was informed that UNHCR was motivated to hand over its Rohingya camp health activities to the MOH in part based upon a 2002 recommendation of UNHCR's External Auditor who apparently concluded that, with a reduced case load in the camps (compared with the 1990s) - the district MOH would be up to the task. Ms. Kondo also saw greater MOH involvement as an integral part of UNHCR's self-sufficiency approach. End additional note. ¶

9. (SBU) Ms. Kondo also informed US Mission that the latest AIDAC FROM U.S. MISSION IN ROME SENSITIVE STATE FOR A/S PRM DEWEY, IO A/S HOLMES, EUR/NE, EUR/WE, SA/INS, IO/EDA SKOTOK USDA/FAS FOR U/S PENN, MCHAMBLISS, RTILSWORTH AND LPANASUK USAID FOR ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS, AA/DCHA WINTER, A iteration of the "self-sufficiency" strategy was presently under active discussion in UNHCR Headquarters, Geneva. The other partners (World Food Program, MSF-H, Irish Concern and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS)- the latter supervises food distributions in the camps) - all voiced concern over the complete lack of consultation and communications in the elaboration of this plan. (Meetings on these issues and time frames between UNHCR and its partners have been going on since late last year with little concluded or agreed upon.) Both international NGOs saw the folding of all health care efforts into the local MOH as a quick way of eliminating their "honest broker" efforts on behalf of "voluntary repatriation." It was also not clear to the US Mission whether this latest draft strategy had even been shared with the Bangladesh Government. --------------------------------------------- ----------- A visit to the two official camps - "Quibbling over the definition of coercion" --------------------------------------------- ----------- ¶

10. (SBU) Walkthroughs (with GOB, UN and NGO personnel) on July 29-30 of the officially recognized Kutupalong and Nayapara camps (populations of 8,268 and 12,495 Rohingya on June 30 respectively) revealed the following: -There remains high chronic malnutrition in both camps, despite an involved and sustained international NGO presence over a number of years. Both camps have supplementary (total coverage 1,300 mothers and small children) and therapeutic feeding centers (covering 100 acutely malnourished children) and WFP has now introduced a primary school biscuit snack program for up to 6,000 camp children; -There is a visible local police presence in both camps, which is reinforced by paramilitary cadres. We also came across a plain-clothed "enforcer" (adept at crowd control), who appeared to be well known and feared by the Nayapara camp residents; -Both of the two Camp-in-Charge GOB officers conveyed that, in their view, almost all of the refugees wanted to go back (now that the Government of Burma had agreed to their return) and that they saw their job as making this happen soonest. They stated that the overall goal is to have all camp residents repatriated by the end of 2004; -On the day of the visit, tension was particularly high at the Kutupalong camp where several groups of women held up banners protesting "bully-boy" tactics and heightened (verbal at this point) threats of intimidation. US Mission was handed a petition (one of dozens that are reportedly generated weekly and given to UN and NGO personnel) which contained the following: "The principles of voluntariness in repatriation, respecting fundamental principles of the refugee law had been/have been/are being excessively violated by GOB Camp officials;" -MSF-H and Irish Concern staff reported that they are now starting to receive threatening letters accusing them of siding with the "dissidents" who want to block the now accelerating repatriation process;S. MISSION IN ROME SENSITIVE STATE FOR A/S PRM DEWEY, IO A/S HOLMES, EUR/NE, EUR/WE, SA/INS, IO/EDA SKOTOK USDA/FAS FOR U/S PENN, MCHAMBLISS, RTILSWORTH AND LPANASUK USAID FOR ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS, AA/DCHA WINTER, AA/ANE, D/DCHA/ -It was clear from viewing MOH facilities and staff in place at both camps that they are presently operating on a "shoestring" with a modicum of personnel and little equipment. ¶

11. (SBU) Note: For our visit, the local UNHCR staff in the camps preferred to play the role of "silent backbenchers." End note. --------------------------------------------- ----------- The "makeshift camp/slum" of Rohingya "illegal intruders" in Teknaf town --------------------------------------------- ----------- ¶

12. (SBU) US Mission observed a 3-4 acre "make-shift camp/ slum" located in the center of Teknaf town, opposite the Thana Executive office. It contains an estimated 4,500 Rohingyas. There is speculation that many of these are refugees who were repatriated by UNHCR over the last years and decided to return again (by illegally crossing back into Bangladesh). This slum has received little serious attention from the UN, the GOB or the NGOs since its emplacement 8-9 months ago. As per MSF-H, the Thana Executive Officer in Teknaf describes these people as "illegal intruders." As per the NGOs, this slum came into being as a direct result of a GOB military-style operation late last year in the area focused on uprooting illegal immigrants ("Operation Clean Heart"). This "sweep" was specifically targeted at the 100,000 "illegal" Rohingyas (the minimum guess) presently living in the Cox's Bazar area (outside the official camps). The condition of these Rihingya slum dwellers in Teknaf town is abominable. When queried, the position of the local UNHCR office towards those people is that they are not refugees and there is therefore no foreseen or anticipated action, as this could trigger further probing as to who these people are and so forth. UNHCR confirmed that they had visited the "makeshift camp/slum" on several occasions but that no assistance had been nor would be provided. From July, the GOB deployed a small contingent of local police at the site. ¶

13. (SBU) MSF-H informed that it had obtained tentative permission of the GOB's Thana leader to access the camp and had been carrying out limited health education for the "makeshift camp population," including encouraging them to access the government hospital for general treatment or other illnesses. The nutritional situation is grim with clear and visible signs of acute malnutrition (marasmus), in particular among the under-fives (mostly girls). Water for the camp is supplied by two government-provided tube wells. US Mission was also informed that 10 latrines had been dug but that overuse and the present monsoon had rendered them unusable. Note: on August 5, US Mission learned from WFP Dhaka that the local MOH had agreed to "intervene" in the Teknaf slum. 

End note. ------------------------------- Conclusions and Recommendations ------------------------------- ¶

14. (SBU) It is imperative that all pressure, overt and covert, direct and indirect, on the 20,000 official Rohingya refugees to repatriate against their will on the part of camp and local authorities - cease with immediate effect. UNHCR needs to affirm that continued international and localS PENN, MCHAMBLISS, RTILSWORTH AND LPANASUK USAID FOR ADMINISTRATOR NATSIOS, AA/DCHA WINTER, AA/ANE, D/DCHA/OFDA BMCCONNELL, D/DCHA/FFP LANDIS BRUSSELS FOR USAID/PLERNER USUN FOR MLUTZ GENEVA FOR AMBASSADOR MOLEY, RMA/LYNCH AND USAID/ NGO presence in these camps as "honest brokers" in the voluntary repatriation process is critical. ¶

15. (SBU) UNHCR and its UN sister agencies need to recognize that, as long as the Government of Burma continues its repression towards the people of Arakan in general and the Rohingya Muslims in particular, UN engagement in Cox' Bazar district will continue and that adequate resources must be allotted. ¶

16. (SBU) Any refugee "self-sufficiency plan" developed by UNHCR for the remaining residual caseload of 20,000 Rohingyas - needs to be fully vetted with all key counterparts (WFP, MSF-H, Irish Concern, Bangladesh Red Crescent, etc) and realistic timeframes mutually agreed upon in an open and transparent manner. ¶

17. (SBU) The UN needs to urgently request the Government of Bangladesh to allow UN Agencies and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to the 4,500 Rohingya living in the "makeshift camp/slum" in Teknaf town. ¶

18. (SBU) UNHCR is asked to consider an assessment to determine the approximate number of Rohingya "illegals" living in the Cox's Bazar district, (minimum estimate 100,000) and suggest a strategy for dealing with them because this is not going to go away. ¶

19. (SBU) The UN needs also to move forward with the establishment of a code of conduct and standards of behavior for its staffs and partners related to protection of vulnerable populations for sexual exploitation and abuse as mandated by the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee at its fifty-third session in Geneva in July, 2003.

 ------- Comment ------- ¶

20. (SBU) UNHCR and its partners have been intimately involved with the Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar since 1991-1992, the initial exodus of 250,000 refugees who left Burma due to acute repression. While the official numbers indicate that, over the last decade, 230,000 have returned home, many have chosen to re-return to Bangladesh as "illegals" rather than deal with the nightmare that is Burma. The remaining official "residual" caseload of 20,000 Rohingyas will (in our view) return only under increased intimidation, which is already evident at the camps. Despite the desire of the GOB to come to closure on this long-festering matter, UNHCR has to remain the unwavering advocate of those Rohingyas who do not choose repatriation. This is not the moment for naivete or rosy optimism. As expressed in a refugee petition handed to us in the Kutupalong camp on July 29: "Seeing no international protection and alternative, we, the unfortunate victims of injustice make up our mind to sign up the affidavit (the future death trap of Rohingya refugee) and go back to Burma with well founded fear of genocide and persecution only to escape the physical torture, arbitrary arrests, jail custody, expulsion from the camps and starvation. We the refugees go back to Burma through one way and leave the homes and enter into Bangladesh through another way." Hall