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Myanmar refugees want permanent home in B'desh

The Rohingyas in Bangladesh are remnants of over 250,000 Muslims who fled Myanmar in 1991 alleging persecution by junta.

india Updated: Jun 06, 2006 14:33 IST

Zafar Alam, like thousands of other Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar living in Bangladesh refugee camps, says he will never go home.

He is one of more than 21,000 Rohingyas living in two camps at Kutupalong and Nayapara in the Cox's Bazar district, 450 km southeast of the capital, Dhaka, who fear persecution by authorities in Buddhist-majority Myanmar if they return.

"They will torture us and put us into prisons for long years or for life," said Alam, who has been at the Kutupalong camp for 15 years.

He said authorities and land grabbers had already occupied their homes just across the river in Arakan, in western Myanmar.

Others said they feared for the safety of their women.

"Who will ensure that our women will not be raped by soldiers again. Kill us and dump our bodies in the sea rather than asking us to go back," said Imam Hossain at Nayapara camp.

The Rohingyas in the two camps are remnants of the more than 250,000 Muslims who fled Myanmar in 1991 alleging persecution by its military government.

Most were repatriated under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the process stalled last July when the rest refused to return home.

Bangladesh officials and the UNHCR say no refugee can be forced to go back.

Repatriation seems absurd to many refugees who either came to the camps when they were young or were born there. For them, Myanmar is a foreign land.

Rahima Khatun, 18, was only three when her parents brought her to Bangladesh, and says she remembers little of her life in Myanmar.

"We have no permanent place to live. Our parents were evicted from Myanmar, and Bangladesh doesn't want us either," she says.

More than 37,000 Rohingya children have been born in the past 15 years, of whom about 9,000 have died from hunger and disease, officials said.

They estimate that more than 60,000 Rohingyas are also living outside the camps with local Muslims, some of them related through marriage.

"We prepared a list of 60,200 Rohingyas living illegally outside refugee camps last year," District Administrator Habibur Rahman told Reuters.

More than 10,000 Rohingyas eke out a living outside the camps in the hundreds of shanties at Damdamia, on the bank of the river Naf, which partially delineates the 320-km border.

"Hundreds of our people have died without food and medicine since we began living here more than a year ago," said Nur Banu.

People fear that poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water might cause a serious outbreak of disease.

Most of the refugees in the shanties do odd jobs at farms or collect wood illegally from nearby forests to earn a living. Police say some are involved in petty theft.

The UNHCR, which distributes food, medicines and other necessities to refugees, says it cannot take responsibility for anyone living outside the camps.

"We are assigned to look after refugees in official camps only," said Jim Worrall, UNHCR chief in Cox's Bazar.

Bangladesh says Rohingyas are economic refugees and must be sent home, but the UNHCR says they deserve a permanent home since they have lived in the country for more than 15 years.

"Not too long ago we had everything including homes, fishing boats and nets and rice fields over there," Nur Hossain said in Damdamia, pointing across Naf river to the hills of Arakan.

"But we have been made homeless and stateless by the military junta. They seem determined to wipe out the Muslims from their Buddhist-dominated country," he said.

Government officials say that the UNHCR and the European Union have urged densely populated Bangladesh to grant permanent asylum to the Rohingyas.

But Bangladesh Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan recently said that European countries should settle the Rohingyas themselves.

"European countries with surplus lands may take the Rohingyas for permanent settlement, but it is impossible for over-populated Bangladesh," Khan told reporters.

First Published: Jun 06, 2006 13:39 IST