By Chris Lewa, Forum Asia, Bangkok

Delivered at the Medecins Sans Frontieres Conference:

“10 Years for the Rohingya Refugees: Past, Present and Future”

Dhaka – 1 April 2002

As long as the situation in Rakhine State does not show any fundamental improvement, Rohingya people will continue to enter and seek shelter in Bangladesh.  The refugees in the two remaining camps are only the visible side of an outflow that has never ceased.  Indeed, the exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh has never stopped.  Every day, new Rohingya individuals and families continue to cross the border illegally and seek sanctuary in Bangladesh.  It is no longer a mass exodus, but a constant trickle.  This influx seems to be encouraged and at the same time strictly controlled by the Myanmar authorities, and concurrently it is rendered invisible by the Bangladesh administration.  New arrivals are denied access to the refugee camps, and these undocumented Rohingya have no other option than to survive among the local population outside the camps.  Their exact number is unknown.  An estimate of 100,000 has regularly been cited for several years now, which does not take into account the constant increase.  According to the local press, there may be as many as 200,000 living in the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf-Bandarban area and this amount appears to be more realistic.   They are not referred to as refugees but labelled as “economic migrants”. 



Forum Asia conducted a random investigation among this undocumented population and interviewed more than 60 men and women in order to ascertain the reasons why Rohingya continue to flee from Myanmar.  Our attention particularly focussed on the most recent arrivals who left Myanmar within the last 2 years, in order to identify the current push-factors for flight ten years after the last major refugee crisis of 1991/92 and to permit an assessment of the prevailing situation in Myanmar.  It should be noted, however, that this undocumented population of up to 200,000 includes both old and new arrivals.  Some of them settled in Bangladesh decades ago.  This figure also includes a residual population of the 1978 exodus, refugees who never took shelter in the camps in 1991/92, others who left the camps, as well as new arrivals since 1995.


Let me give a human face to the new arrivals and echo their voices.  The following cases are representative of the majority of testimonies we have collected:


Yasmina is a 30 year-old woman from Kya Pan Daw in the southern part of Maungdaw Township.  She heads a family of 3 children. 


I arrived in Bangladesh in 1998.  I had never been here before.  One year earlier my husband disappeared after he was taken as a porter.  He never came back home and I don’t really know whether he is dead or alive.  But I believe that if he were alive, he would have found a way to communicate with me.


I had two acres of paddy land and one sungrass field producing 50 bundles of thatch.  I also had a house and a vegetable garden around it.  We could survive with that.  But gradually I lost everything.  It started with the garden around my house.  My neighbour was a rich man.  When my husband did not return, he offered to purchase it.  I refused and then he started using tricks and took it from me.  The NaSaKa later confiscated my 2 acres of paddy land and gave it to the new Buddhist settlers.  Then a policeman took my sungrass field and kept it for himself.


I also had 2 cows, one goat and some chickens.  I sold one cow, and the other one was stolen.  One member of the Village Council came to my house and took the goat for the NaSaKa, while the chickens were shot with catapults by passing soldiers.  In the end I had nothing left.


Then I received 2,000 Kyats from UNHCR [the Rohingya tend to refer to all international agencies as UNHCR]  and they told me to buy chickens and a goat for breeding.  But to tell you the truth I did not purchase any domestic animals with that money.  What is the point?  I knew that the NaSaKa and the military would take them from me  one way or another.  I used part of this money for food, and the rest to come to Bangladesh.


I was feeling insecure.  My house started falling apart, and my neighbour was a bad man.  He always invited the military to visit him.  Then one day, he came to my house with two NaSaKa men.  Without any reason they just sat there for the whole morning smoking ganja and drinking alcohol.  The next day they came again and told me: “We can see that you are facing a lot of troubles.  If you are in need of money, just tell us.”  I realised what they meant, and I got frightened.  So I decided to flee.


In my country, famine is silent.  It is destroying Arakan [Rakhine State].  Everywhere there is lack of food and lack of work.  If you are starving, you won’t even get ¼ Kg of rice from your neighbours because they are also hungry.  Nobody can sleep well at night, because of fear and tension.


Sometimes I become nostalgic and dream about my country, but when I remember what happened to us, I feel a lot of pain and I forget about the nice memories.  I don’t know what will happen to me.  Who am I?  Where should I go?  What should I do?


Noor Alam is a young carpenter, married with 2 daughters, from Maungdaw Township:


I arrived here in the middle of 2001.  We have been  boat builders for 3 generations.   My father and grandfather were also doing this.  But now I cannot continue building boats because anyone who wants to purchase a boat must pay 20 to 40,000 Kyats to the NaSaKa to get a license.  Not only this.  We must pay so much tax for the wood and the boards.  It is no longer a profitable business and people are no longer interested to buy new boats.


Therefore I started a shop in our village.  I was able to survive well with this shop.  But recently the NaSaKa decided to build 60 houses for new settlers. All these houses had to be constructed of wood according to their design.  They demanded carpenters, and the Village Chairman directed them to me.  The NaSaKa showed me the drawings of these houses and ordered me to build them.  I had to close my shop and worked for them for one month.  They beat me twice during that time because I made some building mistakes.  They told us that this was an order of the government, and that we will not be paid.   Other forced labourers from our village were recruited to collect wood in the hills.  They only supplied us with nails.  We had to bring our own tools.  During that time, I could not earn any income and according to our social customs, my wife is not allowed to take care of the shop.  When my capital was used up, I decided to leave the country.   I had just finished building the houses for the new settlers, when they were already issuing an order to build a school for them.


Similar testimonies were given by more than three-quarters of the new arrivals we interviewed. They all belong to families already living in critical or survival conditions in Rakhine State.  The majority are landless and rely on casual labour to earn their living, but others had a small piece of land, which was arbitrarily confiscated by the authorities.  All of these new arrivals are poor, or became impoverished after losing their land.  Among them, we found many female-headed households and the lack of economic participation of women due to social constraints increases their vulnerability.  Generally speaking, most of the landless had previously been refugees in Bangladesh and had been repatriated, while those who had land and lost it had never been refugees before.  Their profiles are thus very similar to the refugees who fled during the crisis of 1991/92, where UNHCR identified 90% of the refugees in the camps as being landless.


Starvation and scarcity of food triggered their decision to leave, after all other coping mechanisms and survival strategies had been exhausted.  It may therefore appear that their flight is prompted by economic reasons.  However, when asked how the lack of food came about, two major root causes are emphasized: forced labour and lack of employment.


Forced labour is still pervasive in Rakhine State.  Compared to the situation 10 years ago, there has been a significant reduction in the practice since UNHCR and WFP took over responsibility for building local road infrastructure, a type of work which usually requires a large pool of labourers.   However, the practice of compulsory labour is far from being eradicated, as documented by the ILO High Level Team of experts who conducted a fact-finding mission in Rakhine State last September.  Forced labour continues to be exacted by the military and the NaSaKa for camp maintenance, construction of military facilities, as well as for plantation work in fields confiscated from the villagers.  Villagers are also forced to build and repair the houses of Buddhist settlers.  Sentry duty is routinely demanded from villagers, and porters are regularly recruited in remote areas.  Other types of labour are also requisitioned for the commercial benefit of the military and NaSaKa — work such as shrimp farm maintenance, collecting bamboo and wood for sale, brick baking, etc.


The poor cannot pay bribes to avoid forced labour and are thus compelled to perform that "duty".  Moreover, they have to do not only their own stint of work, but also that of those who had paid off the authorities.  This burden and the related loss of income deprive them of their daily earnings and are too much for them to bear. 


The impact of forced labour is also exacerbated by a combination of other abuses, such as arbitrary taxation, extortion in kind or in cash, land confiscation and restriction of movement.


Lack of employment and income opportunities can be attributed to many factors, some of them economic.  However, in the case of the Rohingya, it is made worse by restrictions on their freedom of movement and confiscation of their land.


Rohingya need to obtain a travel permit, even to visit a neighbouring village, preventing them from seeking employment elsewhere. After communal riots broke out in Sittwe in February 2001, travel passes were no longer issued for Rohingyas to go beyond Maungdaw and Buthidaung, and Sittwe became totally off limits for them.  These restrictions also affect their ability to trade, reducing economic opportunities and increasing prices of basic commodities.


Arbitrary confiscation of land without compensation has been ongoing for many years, either to provide land for new Buddhist settlers or to build and enlarge military camps, including plantations to grow crops for the military for their own food as well as for commercial purposes.


The remaining quarter of new Rohingya arrivals we have interviewed fled for a variety of reasons, which are not directly linked to food security, but which should be understood within a climate of restriction, corruption and fear.  Most had found themselves in trouble with the authorities, which usually involved a network of local Rohingya informers.


Common situations are reflected in the following cases:


–        Rohingya need permission to get married, and the fee varies from 10,000 to 20,000 Kyats.  Most families cannot afford this amount and thus marry their children "illegally".  When the NaSaKa finds out through their informers, they flee to avoid arrest or a big fine that they are unable to pay.

–        Some people overstay their travel pass, and when they return to their village, discover that an informer has told the NaSaKa that they had gone to Bangladesh or had contacted insurgent groups.  They are afraid to be arrested and flee.

–        Other people also overstay their travel pass but are ready to pay a fine.  When they attempt to return home, they find that their name has already been deleted from their family list.  They are thus forced to leave forever, even though they did not wish to do so.

–        A person submits a complaint about an incident involving the authorities in his village and is later accused of making a “false statement”.

–        At least one person fled after being questioned by the ILO.  When his 2 fellow villagers who also spoke to the ILO were subsequently detained, he fled to avoid arrest.

–        Last November, three policemen were murdered in Long Don village of North Maungdaw.  As a security measure, the authorities threatened to forcibly evict the whole village.  An unknown number of Long Don villagers have recently fled to Bangladesh.


The system of informers plays a significant role in the mechanism of oppression.   Moreover, deletion of names from family lists is systematically applied by the authorities to prevent people from ever returning to their village.  This denies them their right to return home and clearly fits into a policy of expulsion.


This latter category of new arrivals is not necessarily poor, although many are and are therefore unable to pay bribes to avoid “punishment”.  They fled to Bangladesh with a well-founded fear of persecution, but the UNHCR has been unable to examine their claim, less so to provide them with any effective protection.




While lack of food and employment are the driving force behind this forced migration, this situation is the result of a combination of gross human rights violations against the Rohingya community.  In particular, forced labour, arbitrary confiscation of land, and restriction of movement lead to food insecurity and flight. The Government of Myanmar is implementing these policies in a deliberate attempt to get the Rohingya to leave Rakhine State.  The poor are the main target, while the more wealthy enrich the authorities through bribes and taxes.  At the same time, the regime is careful not to create another mass outflow of refugees.  The constant trickle is strictly monitored, so that it remains "invisible" and does not attract international attention.  Referring to the outflow of new arrivals as “economic migrants” is therefore a construct, which only serves to conceal the root causes of flight and deprives them of their rights to seek asylum and assistance.