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24 Sep 2017 8:54
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  •   Home > News > International

    Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar soldiers face limited welcome in Bangladesh

    The more than 300,000 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh in less than three weeks are met with suspicion and exploitation.

    The UN says Myanmar's campaign against Rohingya Muslims is ethnic cleansing. Aid groups say the unfolding crisis is Asia's worst in decades, and are calling for Australia to re-impose sanctions.

    More than 300,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in less than three weeks. But that country doesn't want them either.

    At Kutupalong, one of the mushrooming camps near Bangladesh's border with Myanmar, Rohingya refugee Abdul Majed has arrived with his three children and injured wife.

    "I have a wounded wife and my elderly mother who can't walk," he explains, as they look for somewhere to camp.

    His eyes are red. He's exhausted and grief-stricken.

    He tells the ABC he couldn't carry his father when Myanmar's military found them hiding in the jungle and he now presumes his father was killed.

    The family fled, he and his wife say, after the army raided their village of Tam Bazar, shooting people and setting fire to homes.

    "I along with the Imam of our village mosque buried 22 bodies," Mr Majed says.

    "But there were more dead bodies, between 20 to 40."

    A different hell

    But here, after a traumatic and exhausting two-week journey, there's little respite.

    His wife's foot appears broken, and clearly needs attention. But Mr Majed is torn — get her treatment — or compete with the thousands of other daily arrivals for space and shelter?

    "We have no enough support," says Abul Kashem, the director of local NGO Help Cox's Bazar, in halting English as he gesticulates at the chaotic scenes.

    Mr Kashem is leaning on the Kutupalong makeshift camp's local secretary, Muhammad Noor, to prioritise Mr Majed's family.

    "It is your responsibility to find a space for them if possible," Mr Kashem tells him.

    "We will also help him. Otherwise he will do what others are doing."

    What others are doing is hacking into the surrounding forest, clearing vegetation and carving terraces into the rough hillsides to make space for shelter wherever they can.

    This afternoon, the UN announced another sharp increase in the total number of refugees, saying 370,000 had entered Bangladesh since August 25.

    It is a dramatic increase on the estimate of 313,000 on Monday.

    "And still people are trying to get into the country," UNICEF spokesman Jean-Jaques Simon said.

    "The scale is quite something, the rapidity of the new arrivals.

    "I've been to Rwanda, the Congo, where you have massive influx of people, this is unique because you have limited space for them."

    Locals are taking advantage, selling bamboo poles and tarpaulins for building shelters at up to 10 times their usual price.

    Welcome, temporarily

    On Monday Bangladesh allocated another 800 hectares for new camps, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also said she wants Myanmar to take back the refugees.

    So do many Bangladeshis.

    An hour's drive from the camps is Cox's Bazar, a seaside resort town where locals and visitors worry about what the influx will mean.

    "Cox's Bazar, gonna be problems with Rohingya people," said Faisal, visiting from Chittagong.

    "I think they will do crimes, for their needs," said 27-year-old Cox's Bazar economics student Qaisaruddin.

    Local politicians echo the fear of increased crime.

    Jehangir Chaudhury, the local chairman of Bangladesh's ruling party the Awami league, is blunt.

    "We have to consider that some of Rohingya refugees are bad. So we have to think about law and order," he tells the ABC.

    Cox's Bazar claims the world's longest beach. "We're very proud of that," said town planner Sarwaruddin Ahmed, from the Cox's Bazar Development Authority.

    But Mr Ahmed worries the refugees could harm the area's reputation.

    "(The) Rohingya issue is impacting our city. It's true," he said.

    "We are helping, but it is not a permanent solution. There should be permanent solution."

    Condemnation directed at Suu Kyi

    International pressure on Myanmar ratcheted up significantly this week with the United Nations Human Rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein describing the military's actions as a "textbook" case of ethnic cleansing.

    Myanmar says its military operation is a legitimate response to Rohingya insurgents' attacks on security forces.

    Much of the global criticism has been directed at Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, previously lauded for leading Myanmar away from decades of harsh military rule.

    Dhaka university Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, who has studied the Rohingya's plight extensively, believes the military's apparent brutality is calculated at skewering the popular Ms Suu Kyi.

    "I think the Myanmar military wants to create this chaos, definitely to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

    Mr Ahmed said the military and Buddhist nationalists' goal was to force her into defending the unpopular Rohingya, thereby weakening her appeal.

    "I think the military is trying to test exactly how far she can go because if she goes too far, next election, they will be making this an issue, they can say 'here is a pro-Rohingya Aung San Suu Kyi'."

    Call for Australia to re-impose sanctions

    Over the weekend, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged Myanmar to show "restraint".

    But the head of the Australian Council for International Development Marc Purcell argues that now the UN has termed its actions "ethnic cleansing", that is no longer good enough.

    "This is the biggest refugee crisis we've seen in our part of the world for decades, and we're a neighbour with aspirations and ambitions to go on the UN Human Rights Council," he told the ABC.

    "Australia should call things for what they are, and we should then put sanctions in place for the senior military officials involved."

    'No possibility' of peace

    For what might be the world's most unwanted people, the prospects of any speedy resolution appear dim.

    Despite the squalid conditions, limited prospects and uneasy welcome, against what they've escaped, life in these camps is still, for now, the lesser evil.

    "I don't want to look back to that country (Myanmar)," Abdul Majed says.

    His wife, Shofia Khatun, begins to cry when asked if she could ever return.

    "It was horrible, extremely difficult journey," she sobs.

    "I won't go (back) there at all, there is no possibility of peace there."

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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