WASHINGTON—Expressing serious concerns over deteriorating conditions for Rohingya Muslims inside Burma, top US lawmakers and Obama administration officials have urged neighboring Bangladesh to accept those fleeing over the border and give them refugee status.
Burma has been facing a mounting humanitarian crisis in recent weeks, said Congressman James McGovern, who chaired the special hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Bangladesh.
Noting that Burma's western Arakan (Rakhine) State has seen an escalation in state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim people who have suffered persecution and discrimination for decades, McGovern said that this recent outburst of violence has forced many to flee their homes to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh.
"Rather than offering sanctuary for refugees seeking protection from persecution and abuse, Bangladesh has forced members of this community to return back to Burma where they face an immediate threat to life and safety," he said.
New York Congressman Joseph Crowley also expressed concern about the plight of Rohingya refugees. "I'm concerned and I think we're disappointed when people who are fleeing conflict in their own land, are not recognized as citizens in their own country, and are fleeing harm's way and to have women and children being turned back, I don't think it looks positively on the people of Bangladesh," he said.
"I know that's not who they are and what they're about. I think they're peace-loving people and want to see advancements not only for themselves, but for their neighbors in the ongoing conflict," Crowley said, adding that he hopes to raise this issue with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when she travels to the United States in September.
Responding to the concerns of American lawmakers, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said that the Obama administration also feels disappointed by Bangladesh's policy of turning away the Rohingya and other individuals fleeing the sectarian violence that has gripped western Burma since early June.
"This stands in marked contrast to the country's traditional policy of non-refoulement," he said. "The US government has and will continue to raise concern for the well-being of these individuals at the highest levels."
At the same time, Blake pointed out that Bangladesh has supported more than 250,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh for decades. "Most of those are economic migrants and not so much refugees. But we have consistently made the point to the government of Bangladesh that they have an international obligation to try to help those who are fleeing violence in Burma right now. So we've urged the government of Bangladesh to continue its policy of non-refoulement," he told Crowley in response to a question at the hearing on Thursday.
Blake said Bangladesh has provided emergency assistance—food, water, blankets and medicine—but then turned all those in need back over to Burma in order not to permanently add to the population that they already have.
"So we've expressed our concern about that policy for the reasons that I just spoke of," he said. "And we've also said that we and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stand ready to provide economic assistance to the government to help them to the extent that they need to help provide for these refugees."
McGovern went on to enquire if this was an issue that has been discussed with the Burmese authorities. "And what, if anything, has the United States done to improve the circumstances faced by the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh?" he added. "You mentioned that we made an offer to provide some assistance, but was that offer accepted?"
Blake responded by saying that diplomatic efforts have fallen short as Bangladesh did not actually accept any refugees but instead sent them back. "But we have had provided assistance in the past," he said. "No one really knows the exact number of Rohingyas that are in Bangladesh, but it's somewhere between 250,000 to 400,000 of whom 29,000 are actually registered in camps."
Some Rohingya living in Bangladesh have been there for over 30 years, explained Blake. "And they don't want to go back so they're not going to be forcibly repatriated," he said. "They quite understandably are very concerned about the situation back in Burma.
"It's possible to envision a circumstance where in the future conditions might improve sufficiently in Burma whereby they might be willing and might in fact seek to try to be repatriated back, but those don't yet exist," added Blake.