A group of Rohingya women held by the Bangladesh Boarder Guards on Nov. 19 at Teknaf, Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. (Photo by Zabed Iqbal Chowdhury)
Boatloads of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar have been denied entry into Bangladesh exasperating international rights groups and a Catholic Church official.
Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, criticized the Bangladesh government for pushing back about 300 Rohingya people.
"It is really disappointing to see Rohingyas again facing persecution in Myanmar even though the country has a civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh government has taken an unjust stance by refusing entry and shelter to Rohingyas fearing for their lives," he told ucanews.com.
Over the past three days, Bangladesh border and coast guards have pushed back Rohingyas who were trying to enter Teknaf in Cox's Bazar district.
"As of Nov. 20, border and coast guards have pushed back 300 Rohingya men, women and children into Myanmar who were trying to seek refuge in Bangladesh. We provided them with food and water and then sent them back to Myanmar," said Lieutenant Colonel Anwarul Azim, commanding officer of the Bangladesh Border Guards in Cox's Bazar district.
Hundreds of Rohingyas have been trying to escape a deadly military crackdown in the Myanmar state of Rakhine over recent weeks. At least 90 people have been killed so far according to a Reuters report.
The Myanmar military has locked down Rohingya areas and have refused entry to aid workers, independent observers and journalists. The move was triggered when nine Myanmar border police were killed on Oct. 9 in coordinated attacks.
The military blamed Rohingya insurgents. The subsequent bloodshed has been the worst since 2012-2013 sectarian violence that some dubbed a genocide.
A group of Rohingya refugees in a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar in 2013 (ucanews.com photo)
Muhammad Hafez, a Rohingya living in the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox's Bazar told ucanews.com that he is worried for his family.
"In the 10 years I have lived in Bangladesh, I have been able to talk to my father, brother and sisters in Rakhine every day. But over the last week, I have lost contact with them and I don't know if they are dead or alive," Hafez told ucanews.com.
The Rohingyas' presence in Rakhine can be traced back over centuries but the Myanmar government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
Although equally unwelcome in Bangladesh, tens of thousands have still managed to flee to the country since the 1970s to escape persecution at the hands of their Buddhist neighbors and Myanmar's security forces.
Currently, about 30,000 registered refugees live in two government-run camps in Cox's Bazar and depend on aid from the government and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
The UNHCR estimates about 200,000-300,000 undocumented Rohingyas live in makeshift settlements near the official camps. Bangladesh authorities put the figure at 500,000.
UN urges Bangladesh to open border
In a recent statement, the UNHCR urged the Myanmar government "to ensure the protection and dignity of all civilians in its territory in accordance with the rule of law and its international obligations."
"We appeal for calm and for humanitarian access to assess and meet the needs of thousands of people who have reportedly been displaced from their homes by the ongoing security operation. The affected population is believed to be in urgent need of food, shelter and medical care," the statement said.
It also urged Bangladesh to keep the border open and provide safe passage to civilians.
"We are also appealing to the government of Bangladesh to keep its border with Myanmar open and allow safe passage to any civilians from Myanmar fleeing violence," the statement added.