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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK

World: South Asia

No deal on Burmese refugees in Bangladesh

By Kaushik Das in Cox's Bazar

Burma and Bangladesh have failed to resolve the fate of some 22,000 Burmese Muslim refugees living in Bangladesh.

After talks in Dhaka, the Burmese Foreign Minister U Win Aung has left with no agreement on taking them back.

The refugees, known as the Rohingyas, are sheltered in two camps near the town of Cox's Bazar in south-east Bangladesh.

Bangladesh says that since 1991, roughly a quarter of a million Rohingya refugees from Burma's Arakan province have crossed the Naf river that divides the two countries.

Although Dhaka says that most of those have gone back to Burma, a substantial number effectively remain stateless.

Funding threat

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has appealed to both countries' governments to resolve their differences over the refugees, because western donor agencies have threatened to stop funding the relief operation in Bangladesh.

[ image: The Rohingyas crossed into Bangladesh from Burma's Arakan province]
The Rohingyas crossed into Bangladesh from Burma's Arakan province
The UNHCR says that five donor countries have already stopped funding the project, citing the repatriation as being too slow and going on for too long.

Over the last 18 months, only a handful of refugees have returned to Burma.

Bangladeshi government officials say that is because the Burmese authorities have refused to accept them as Burmese nationals.

Officials say Burma allows only 50 refugees per week to return; they say this has significantly delayed the repatriation process.

The UNHCR say the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that some refugees flee the camps as soon as they hear that they going to be sent back.

Some aid workers say the Bangladeshi Government should refrain from forcing refugees to return to Burma, and that they should instead be allowed to stay in the country on a temporary basis. The government is likely, however, to reject such a proposition.

[ image: Stateless, they are not wanted in either country]
Stateless, they are not wanted in either country
The Bangladeshi Rohingya Refugee Repatriation Commission says that at least 150,000 illegal Rohingya immigrants are living in and around the Cox's Bazar area.

The commission says some of them are involved in criminal activities.

That has led to calls for them to be rounded up in a special police operation and immediately sent back to Burma. Even if this was done it would be unlikely to stop the regular infiltration of refugees across the Naf River into Bangladesh.

Poor conditions

Meanwhile, there seem to be strong divisions among the refugees themselves as to whether they should return to the country they have abandoned because of what they say is the constant persecution of the Burmese military government.

Some argue that unless Burma accepts them as genuine citizens, the question of going back does not arise. But others maintain that its better to struggle to survive in their home country rather than endure the pitiful conditions of the refugee camps.

As this debate rages, there have been complaints from some refugees in the camps of ill-treatment by Bangladeshi officials. Women, in particular, say they have been beaten up for refusing to go back to Burma.

They say their rations have either been stopped or reduced as punishment. Some have complained that these incidents took place within the camps, but the UNHCR denies this. It seems as if the suffering of the refugees looks set to continue.

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