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Burmese refugees in Bangladesh suffer a shortage of food, care

Rights group says aid is being denied

About 30,000 unregistered Burmese refugees are effectively quarantined at the makeshift Kutupalong camp. About 30,000 unregistered Burmese refugees are effectively quarantined at the makeshift Kutupalong camp. (Physicians for Human Rights)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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Nearly 1 in 5 Burmese Muslim children living in unofficial refugee camps in Bangladesh are suffering from acute malnutrition because they are being denied food aid and health care, according to a report from a Cambridge-based human rights group being released today.

Researchers for the organization, Physicians for Human Rights, conducted lengthy interviews and a survey last month of 100 families in one squalid camp that is home to members of the Rohingya minority, who have fled to Bangladesh in recent years from across the border in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The researchers found that more than 18 percent of the children under 5 showed symptoms of acute malnutrition and 55 percent had suffered diarrhea in the past 30 days because of squalid conditions in the camps.

The human rights group called on the government of Bangladesh and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take urgent steps to improve conditions in the Rohingya settlements in southeastern Bangladesh, near the Myanmar border.

The Rohingya people are Burmese Muslims who have faced persecution for decades from the military government. Roughly 300,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, especially since the early 1990s, but just 28,000 live in official UN refugee camps. The rest have settled in Bangladeshi towns or in the unofficial settlements on the edges of the official camps.

Officials at the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment. The government of Bangladesh has said in the past that the Rohingya are economic migrants in the country without permission and should go home. Bangladesh says it lacks the capacity to care for the Rohingya refugees, and it wants Myanmar to take back those who are registered with the UN refugee agency.

Other rights groups have complained that in recent months Bangladeshi authorities have stepped up their harassment of the Rohingya and are blocking some of the meager international aid that does get to the group. Doctors Without Borders said a Bangladesh government crackdown appeared to have started in October.

The Physicians for Human Rights report said refugees told the researchers that Bangladeshi police have forcibly sent more than 2,200 Rohingya back to Myanmar and have rounded up thousands of others who are now isolated in makeshift camps amid miserable sanitary conditions.

The report researchers were led by Richard Sollom, director of research and investigations, and Dr. Parveen Parmar, an emergency physician from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. They surveyed residents of the Kutupalong makeshift settlement. They also interviewed others from three nearby informal camps.

Their report, titled “Starving and Stateless,’’ declares: “Burmese refugees at the unofficial camps in Bangladesh are critically food insecure and are beginning to die from starvation.’’

“The great majority of children examined by the PHR team were both visibly stunted and underweight, both signs of chronic malnutrition,’’ the report added. The bad conditions also raise the risk of waterborne diseases: “Walking through the Kutupalong camp, PHR investigators saw stagnant raw sewage next to refugees’ makeshift dwellings.’’