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Diplomacy in Action

Mission to Bangladesh: The Tragic Plight of Rohingya Refugees

Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
June 14, 2011


Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I wanted to brief you on my trip last week to Bangladesh to explore issues surrounding Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and the region. I was joined on the trip by Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Clements of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), and ably assisted on the ground by Deputy Refugee Coordinator Anjalina Sen and Embassy Dhaka officials Jon Danilowicz and Sophie Gao. I also received terrific guidance and support from our Ambassador, James Moriarty. 

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group from western Burma. Under successive Burmese regimes over several decades, they have been rendered stateless and subjected to systematic and severe violations of human rights. As a result of these deprivations, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh over the last three decades, principally in two waves ¬¬-- in 1978 and 1991-92. 

Sadly, the Rohingya are among many stateless populations throughout the world -- people who have no nationality. Without documentation or legal status, stateless people are vulnerable to serious abuses. To address this problem, our Bureau is working with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others on a range of initiatives, which include efforts to promote equal nationality rights for women and a child’s right to nationality. 

Date: 06/16/2011 Description: Assistant Secretary Schwartz - State Dept Image

We visited registered and unregistered refugees in Kutupalong camp and
makeshift site, home to more than 30,500 Rohingya.
Photo courtesy of Anjalina Sen, Deputy Refugee Coordinator, U.S. Embassy Bangkok, June 7, 2011

Currently in Bangladesh, over 28,000 Rohingya are in two UNHCR-supported camps, another 30,000 are in informal encampments, and hundreds of thousands are elsewhere in the Cox’s Bazar district in Southeastern Bangladesh near the border with Burma. 

While in Bangladesh, I travelled to Cox's Bazar district, which hosts most of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I visited the UNHCR-supported Kutupalong camp, with over 11,500 Rohingya, and an adjoining informal encampment with about 19,000. While being drenched by early monsoon rains that had broken the sweltering heat, I spoke with refugees and learned about the deprivation and abuse that had forced them from their homes in Burma. I also learned about current challenges, especially those faced by Rohingya who are outside the UNHCR-assisted camps -- such as very high rates of malnutrition and lack of access to services. Our delegation spoke with women in particular to assess their concerns about a range of issues, including access to reproductive healthcare and education.

While in Cox's Bazar, I also met with local officials, members of the community, and representatives of international and non-governmental organizations. We discussed efforts to assist the Rohingya, as well as challenges faced by the Bangladeshi communities that are serving as hosts to the refugees. 

Make no mistake: the solution to this refugee challenge lies in Burma, and Rohingya will only feel able to return in large numbers when their basic rights are safeguarded. Sadly, that is not the case today. And while the international community has an obligation to try to improve the quality of life for the Rohingya who remain in western Burma, the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya now in Bangladesh will need help in Bangladesh for the foreseeable future. 

 Date: 06/15/2011 Description: Conditions in the makeshift site remain difficult -- in addition to high rates of malnutrition, residents deal with crowding and poor sanitation. Photo courtesy of Anjalina Sen, Deputy Refugee Coordinator, U.S. Embassy Bangkok, June 7, 2011 - State Dept Image 

Conditions in the makeshift site remain difficult -- in addition to high  rates of
malnutrition, residents deal with crowding and poor sanitation.
Photo courtesy of Anjalina Sen, Deputy Refugee Coordinator, U.S. Embassy Bangkok, June 7, 2011

While in Dhaka, I met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, Minister for Food and Disaster Management Abdur Razzak, and officials from the Ministries of Home Affairs and Defense. I expressed appreciation to the government and the people of Bangladesh for hosting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees over many years, and made clear the United States commitment to strongly support such humanitarian efforts. The United States has funded the refugee program in Bangladesh since 1991. In 2010, we provided $23.5 million to regional appeals of UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and $1.28 million to NGOs working with Rohingya refugees and local host Bangladeshi populations. This is of course in addition to the nearly $200 million in development aid provided annually by the United States to the people of Bangladesh. I also affirmed the commitment of the United States to support women and families through critical maternal and reproductive health services like family planning. 

In addition to visiting with Rohingya refugees in southeast Bangladesh, I had the opportunity in Dhaka to visit with formerly stateless Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis, most of whom reside in camps or open settlements. I visited the Geneva camp (so named due to the early involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross) and discussed integration into government programs and services of community members (who are commonly known as the Urdu-speaking Biharis and, sometimes, as the “stranded Pakistanis"). Due to a May 2008 Supreme Court decision to extend Bangladeshi nationality to this group without discrimination, they are no longer considered stateless -- an important milestone. Community members indicated that progress is slow, but they are now accessing more education and healthcare.

Date: 06/15/2011 Description: Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Clements greets a formerly stateless child in Geneva camp.  The girl now has the right to both education and Bangladeshi nationality. Photo courtesy of Sophie Gao, U.S. Embassy Dhaka, June 8, 2011 - State Dept Image

Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Clements greets a formerly 
stateless child in Geneva camp. The girl now has the right to 
both education and Bangladeshi nationality.
Photo courtesy of Sophie Gao, U.S. Embassy Dhaka, June 8, 2011

During my government meetings in Dhaka, I focused on the situation of the Rohingya. I discussed with officials how best to meet the requirements of Rohingya refugees in the camps and surrounding areas, including those of the most vulnerable within the population. To help women and children at special risk, to help torture victims, to help victims of gender-based violence, and to help those with very serious medical conditions, I encouraged the authorities to permit resumption of a modest third country resettlement program they had recently suspended. I also discussed how best to address the needs and concerns of Bangladeshi communities that host the refugees. Officials told me they are reviewing these and related issues, including the question of documentation of Rohingya outside the camps.

Frankly, Bangladesh officials are concerned that policies they institute not encourage greater cross-border movements from Burma to Bangladesh. I indicated our appreciation of these issues, but emphasized that migration management concerns should not (and need not) come at the expense of humane treatment of refugees -- and I was encouraged when officials reiterated their government's commitment to refuge -- and humane treatment -- for those at risk. 

To be sure, these are challenging issues. But whatever policy choices are made, it is critical to recall that the Rohingya are victims. And while any population of hundreds of thousands of refugees will create law enforcement and security challenges, the vast majority of this population is guilty of nothing other than a desire to flee repression and create a better life for themselves and their families.

If that proposition frames discussions of how to relate to the Rohingya, we are likely to have responsible and defensible policy outcomes. 

Overall, my discussions in Bangladesh were productive, and laid the basis for a constructive dialogue. I look forward to working with the Government of Bangladesh, the United Nations and others on these important issues. 

Eric Schwartz 
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration  

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