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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Rohingya crisis: Thousands continue to flee amid reports of continuing violence

New figures released by the International Organisation for Migration on Tuesday showed that 582,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar since August 25, including as many as 15,000 who had arrived in Bangladesh since Sunday night

A group of Rohingya refugees who reached the Bangladesh overnight wait at sunrise to be allowed access to an official registration centre. Antolin Avezuela
A group of Rohingya refugees who reached the Bangladesh overnight wait at sunrise to be allowed access to an official registration centre. Antolin Avezuela

As a truck transporting Rohingya refugees from the Myanmar border neared the main registration point in Bangladesh, one mother fainted, her tiny baby sliding out of her arms as her other young children tried to revive her. Most of the other mainly women and children on board the truck sat slumped in silence, showing clear signs of shock and trauma as they were carried to the registration point where thousands of other new arrivals were waiting to be assigned to different camps.

Senora, another mother on board the truck, said that she and her two-year-old son had fled their home in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state two weeks ago.

“I am not feeling so good," said the pregnant 19-year-old. "I’ve been sleeping beside the river [on the Myanmar side of the border] with no shelter and feeling hungry for many days.”

Senora and the woman who fainted are just two of the thousands of Rohingya refugees to have arrived in Bangladesh since Sunday night, with new arrivals telling The National that ongoing harassment and attacks by security forces and Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine had forced them to flee.

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New figures released by the International Organisation for Migration on Tuesday showed that 582,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar since August 25, including as many as 15,000 who had arrived in Bangladesh since Sunday night. The fresh influx has left thousands of people stranded at the border area, waiting for permission to move away, according to the United Nations' refugee agency.

Medical workers registering the latest Rohingya refugees to make it to Bangladesh told The National that most of the new arrivals were experiencing severe distress and fatigue. Many also had diseases such as dysentery, which were related to long weeks spent in hiding or waiting to cross the Naf river that runs along the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Elderly people had particularly suffered from the many days spent living outdoors and the arduous journey, said one military medic.

Like many of those arriving at the main registration point in Bangladesh on Monday who spoke to The National, Senora said she had been waiting for over a week on the Rakhine side of the border because she had struggled to find a boatman to take her across the river at a price she could afford.

A Rohingya woman and her children, wearing traditional Myanmar tanaka make up, arrive in Bangladesh after fleeing the violence in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. Antolin Avezuela
A Rohingya woman and her children, wearing traditional Myanmar tanaka make up, arrive in Bangladesh after fleeing the violence in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. Antolin Avezuela

Handouts of food parcels and water were grabbed at desperately by those waiting for transferal to the camps.

The region’s biggest refugee crisis in recent years comes as Rakhine's minority Muslim Rohingya population has faced military reprisals and violence by Buddhist villagers in the wake of attacks on security posts by Rohingya militants on August 25. Refugees at the main registration point in Bangladesh reported atrocities carried out by Myanmar military and ethnic Rakhine villagers, including shootings, knife killings, and sexual violence. Hundreds of Rohingya are believed to have been killed since August 25, according to the UN.

In the initial aftermath of the August 25 attacks, around 300,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh in just two weeks amid widespread burnings of properties and brutal attacks on civilians. But despite claims by the Myanmar government that so-called "clearance operations" targeting militants ended on September 5, reports of violence continue.

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Refugees arriving in Bangladesh from villages in northern Rakhine on Monday said they had been forced to flee because of military operations taking place within the past two weeks. Some described how they had stayed in their villages for as long as they could, or taken shelter in neighbouring villages after their own had come under attack, but had eventually fled for the border either because of threats from the military or because their homes had been set alight.

A military medic at the border meanwhile said he had treated two new arrivals for bullet wounds in the past 20 days and “many patients with cuts”.

“We didn’t want to leave; we left because we were scared of the military. There’s still burning in our area,” said Mahamud Zubair, 25, from Rakhine's Maungdaw region.

“They burnt our homes and took all our possessions. We couldn’t move anywhere because of the military operations,” added Rashida, 30, from the Buthidaung area, who travelled to Bangladesh with her four children.

When The National arrived at the Bangladesh border on the morning of October 10, smoke could be seen rising from areas of northern Rakhine.

Newly-released satellite images from Human Rights Watched show that 288 villages have been partially or totally destroyed by fire in northern Rakhine since August 25, with at least 66 burnt since September 5.

“These latest satellite images show why over half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just four weeks,” said Phil Robertson, the rights group's deputy Asia director.

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“The Burmese military destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages while committing killings, rapes, and other crimes against humanity that forced Rohingya to flee for their lives.”

Drone footage shot on Monday showed thousands of people lined up on Shah Porir Dwip, a small island between Myanmar and Bangladesh, waiting to make the crossing to the Bangladesh mainland.

The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Tuesday it was concerned about the humanitarian condition of the thousands of new arrivals who were stranded near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

“UNHCR and our partners, the Bangladesh Red Crescent and Action against Hunger, are delivering food and water to the stranded refugees, among them children, women and the elderly who are dehydrated and hungry from the long journey. Our staff are working with Médecins Sans Frontières to identifying the sick for treatment,” the organisation said.

“UNHCR is advocating with the Bangladesh authorities to urgently admit these refugees fleeing violence and increasingly-difficult conditions back home. Every minute counts given the fragile condition they’re arriving in.”