Abandoned by their government, more than 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violence in Myanmar by crossing into Bangladesh over the past two weeks, bringing with them harrowing tales of murder, rape and burned villages, reports Al Jazeera.
“Women, children, the elderly - no one has been spared,” survivors have said, pleading for the international community, regional powers and their civilian government to stop the bloodshed.
Myanmar’s army has previously said it had killed 387 Rohingya “fighters”, blaming the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for the latest round of violence that began last month. Yet, fleeing Rohingya refugees have accused the country’s security forces of responding with a campaign of arson and murder in a bid to force them out of Myanmar, adds Qatar-based news organisation.
Stripped of their citizenship by the military government in the 1980s, more than 50 per cent of the beleaguered ethnic group have been forced to neighbouring countries. Now, less than one million remain.
The Rohingya, a minority Muslim group who have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for centuries, have suffered decades of repression under the country’s Buddhist majority.
The UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing, appealing to the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s security forces to end the violence, Al Jazeera also says.
But with the violence showing no end in letting up - the new influx of refugees is overwhelming camps in Bangladesh that were already bursting at the seams.
Al Jazeera spoke with Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), about the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims and the body’s response to the crisis.
Al Jazeera: Does the UN have the resources to look after 270,000 new refugees?
Vivian Tan: No we don’t, not at this point. The numbers are immense and they just keep growing.
Over the last few days, different UN agencies and NGOs went to affected areas to do a rapid means assessment and we reached out to areas we were not previously aware were hosting refugees.
It was here that we found these pockets of new arrivals - in villages and in spontaneous settlements sprouting on the side of the road.
So no, we don’t have enough resources, and based on this rapid needs assessment we will get a clearer picture of what we need and appeal for funds.
Al Jazeera: Can you describe the cases of some of the refugees you’ve come across?
Vivian Tan: We’re consistently told by most of the arriving refugees: ‘my home was burned, or my village was burnt.’
We’re often told that a helicopter came and dropped something onto their village, and a number of them reported shootings, but it still isn’t clear if they were targeted shootings or shootings to scare people away. Some said they lost family members.
In terms of how they fled, most reported walking for several days. The minimum I’ve heard is three days and the maximum is nine.
They said they hid in jungles, in mountains, and they helped each other because of the difficult conditions. And there were also quite a few stories about babies being born along the way.
I was in Shamlapur a few days back, a seaside area some 7km from the border, and I came across a family who had a baby in the jungle as they were hiding.
And yesterday [Thursday], at the Nayapara camp in Teknaf, a father approached a clinic we were at looking very worried, gesturing “come-come”.
We came out and he took us to this little basket covered by a blanket. I thought this could be chickens or vegetables, but he opened it up and showed us two tiny, babies. His wife had just given birth to twins while they were on the run.
There are a lot of really heartbreaking stories.
Al Jazeera: What’s the situation for children in the camps?
Vivian Tan: We’re seeing a worryingly high number of unaccompanied children and separated children.
Many have either lost their parents in the violence or along the way as they fled. Some are with aunts or neighbours. Others, however, are completely alone.
We are trying really hard, working with volunteers and NGOs to identify them and take them to special protected spaces.
There are NGOs like Action against Hunger, who are providing hot meals and supplementary foods and nutritional assessments, but there are so many weak and malnourished children.
Sadly, it’s not just from the journey - many of them hadn’t eaten for days before they left.
Al Jazeera: What’s your assessment of how refugees have been treated?
Vivian Tan: What’s really been surprising and heartening is the local response. In areas such as Shamlapur and Teknaf, villages are just taking them in.
One village took in around 10,000 people in a few days, and they continue to accept them, feed them and provide for them.
Even in Cox’s Bazar town, which is quite far from the refugee camps, people have rallied together, collecting food, money and bringing it to the new arrivals.
The public response has been very encouraging in spite of Bangladesh hosting Rohingya for decades.
One would expect “host-fatigue” but the locals have really rallied around these new arrivals.
But at some point their own resources are going to run low or completely run dry, we think it’s not only important to help these new arrivals but also provide support for the host community.
Al Jazeera: What is your biggest concern in terms of the refugees’ rights, and their ability to be protected?
Vivian Tan: We’re looking at this at two levels right now: immediate needs - and this involves saving lives: giving people food, water and a roof over their heads and medical attention if they need it.
We’re currently talking to the authorities about purchasing more land because if it continues like this, it’s going to be a big mess.
It’s going to give rise to health issues, serious overcrowding and even tensions between the locals, so it needs to be managed better.
And then there’s the second issue, legal protection, which includes registration.
Even the 270,000 number the UN came out with today is just a rough estimate. Until we do a headcount, a proper registration and document them, we won’t know home many are here, who’s looking after them and what they need.
By documenting them they’ll be better protected here in Bangladesh. Should they get stopped by the police or anyone else, they’ll have the evidence to prove they’re a refugee and they’re here legally.
And in the long run, if and when conditions improve in Myanmar, if there’s a chance of voluntary return, we will need this information to send it to the government so they can start discussing repatriation.
In the short, and long-term, it’s crucial they get their documents so they can retain their identity.