Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A scene at the official Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, home to around 11,000 documented Rohingya refugees
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 200,000 registered Burmese refugees worldwide.
However, aid groups say there are hundreds of thousands more who would be defined as refugees, but who do not have access to UNHCR or do not contact the agency. In addition, UNHCR does not always have access to potential refugee populations.
The numbers are equally staggering for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar.
According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s (TBBC) latest survey released in November 2009, there are more than half a million IDPs in eastern Myanmar, where the country’s insurgency-related conflicts are situated.
This includes at least 75,000 who were forced to leave their homes between August 2008 and November 2009 in eastern Myanmar, where the TBBC says the main threats to security are related to militarization.
The main Burmese refugee populations are in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India.
In Thailand, some 150,000 refugees, who are mostly ethnic Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon, are in nine camps along Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, according to the TBBC, which has been involved in the camps for 25 years.
UNHCR has registered 112,000 refugees, while 10,000 are being assessed in a pilot screening process by the Thai government to determine if they are asylum seekers.
“For the first 10 years, refugees arrived because territory was being over-run and they were losing their homes,” said Jack Dunford, the TBBC’s executive director. “For the past 15 years, they have been coming because of the brutality, now that the Burmese army is over-running this area [eastern Myanmar].”
All the camps have been constructed and are run by the refugees themselves, under elected committees. They have health and education facilities, also staffed by refugees.
The camp model has been a success, but the camps are now facing a brain drain, since large numbers have chosen to be resettled in third countries, said Dunford.
“We have lost 75 percent of all our skilled workers in the last four years and we are constantly in the process of trying to retrain people,” he said.
In Malaysia, there were 65,000 UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar as of November 2009. These include 30,500 Chins, 16,700 Rohingyas, and 3,800 Myanmar Muslims, with the rest comprising other Burmese ethnic minorities.
Photo: Graphic and text courtesy of the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO)
Map with routes commonly taken by Chin out of Myanmar
Route A: Chin State to Mizoram, India
Route B: Chin State to Mandalay to Yangon to Kawthuang (by boat) to Malaysia
Route C: Chinland to Mandalay to Yangon to Kawthuang (by land) to Malaysia
Route D: Chinland to Mae Sot/Three Pagodas Pass, Thailand to Malaysia
Besides the registered refugees, advocacy and rights groups say there are thousands more unregistered Burmese who have no protection.
Malaysia has been identified as a hotspot for Burmese refugees, although it is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and refugees are afforded little or no protection and can be detained as illegal migrants.
However, unlike many other destinations, Malaysia allows UNHCR access to the Burmese to determine their status, which has earned the country praise.
UNHCR regional spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said leaders of the Rohingya, Chin and other ethnic communities furnish the agency with lists of potential refugees. UNHCR is also able to get into detention centres to register the Burmese.
“Not only can we register there, we can get them out of detention, which is an excellent achievement,” said McKinsey.
According to the Canadian-based Chin Human Rights Organization NGO, most Chin refugees live in Kuala Lumpur in extreme poverty in cramped living conditions. There are also Chin living in makeshift camps in the Cameron Highlands in central Pahang state, who work on farms.
Fewer than a third of the Chin community in Malaysia are employed, and those who work are relegated to the informal sector and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, the CHRO said in an article in the Forced Migration Review in 2008.
Most of the Rohingya live in and around Kuala Lumpur and the northern state of Penang, and work as rubbish collectors for municipal councils, as well as in markets, construction sites, plantations and factories, according to a January 2010 report by the UK-based Equal Rights Trust advocacy organization.
“Malaysia is the only country in the region where any new arrivals among the Rohingya fleeing from Burma can actually get a minimum of protection,” said Chris Lewa, the report researcher and co-writer, and coordinator of The Arakan Project, an NGO involved in research-based advocacy on Myanmar.
Nevertheless, Lewa says Rohingya in Malaysia are under the constant threat of arrest, detention and deportation.
If arrested, they can be detained for months in poor conditions with little access to health care, while those convicted of immigration offences face up to four months in prison and corporal punishment, according to the report.
Some 28,000 UNHCR-registered Rohingya refugees are living in two government camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara, in the district of Cox’s Bazar on the country’s southeast coast as of the end of 2008.
However, advocacy groups say there are between 200,000 and 400,000 unregistered Rohingya outside the camps, mainly in the districts of greater Chittagong and Barisal. UNHCR has not been able to register any Rohingya since 1993.
Camp residents have access to basic services, but those outside the camps have no support or assistance. In June 2009, authorities destroyed a portion of the nearby, unofficial, Kutupalong makeshift camp, leaving hundreds of unregistered refugees homeless.
Photo: Photo courtesy of The Arakan Project
Shelter is rudimentary for undocumented Rohingya in the unofficial Kutupalong camp
“One day they hope they can go back, but many feel that it’s maybe never going to happen, or if it’s going to happen, it may take a very long time,” said Lewa. “In the meantime, of course they try to survive.”
A Médecins San Frontières assessment of the Kutupalong makeshift camp in March 2009 found there were 20,000 people living in dire humanitarian conditions with acute malnutrition, 90 percent food insecurity and poor water and sanitation.
Rather than conflict, the outflow of Rohingya refugees from the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh is related to systematic repression and abuse, according to rights activists.
The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens by the Burmese government. They do not have freedom of movement, needing permission to go from one village to another. Rohingya also cannot travel beyond three townships in northern Rakhine State, severely restricting their economic opportunities. They need official permission to marry and couples are restricted to having only two children, while unmarried couples are vulnerable to prosecution.
Most Burmese refugees in India are ethnic Chin and mostly live in the northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur, which border Myanmar, as well as the capital, Delhi.
At end-2008, there were about 1,960 UNHCR-registered Burmese refugees. However, there are about 100,000 unregistered Chin refugees in India’s Mizoram State alone, according to an April 2009 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). There are another 4,200 Chin in Delhi.
With no legal status, most Chin refugees have inadequate income to meet their basic housing, health and education needs, according to a December 2009 report by the US-based Refugees International.
Although the Chin share ethnic and cultural links with communities in Mizoram State, they are vulnerable to abuse, discrimination and harassment.
“While so far UNHCR has not been able to carry out any intervention there, we are exploring different ways of supporting activities that may contribute to improving their condition,” said UNHCR’s McKinsey.
There is a UNHCR office in Delhi, but making the journey of more than 2,400km from Mizoram State to be registered as an asylum seeker is beyond the reach of most refugees.
Salai Bawilian, CHRO’s executive director, said: “It is a huge amount of money for the refugees and they cannot afford it.”