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Rohingya Muslim Refugees Face Difficult Conditions In Bangladesh


More than half a million Rohingya refugees have left Myanmar for Bangladesh since late August. They are fleeing what the United Nations has called a, quote, "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." But as Michael Sullivan reports from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh is a reluctant refuge.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: In the Kutupalong camp, just a few miles from the border with Myanmar, hundreds of Rohingya line up patiently in the hot sun waiting for temporary IDs.


SULLIVAN: Inside, Border Guards Bangladesh Major Kazi Obaidur Reza explains the process.

KAZI OBAIDUR REZA: We are taking their photographs. They are giving their biometrics of all fingers. At last, they are getting this type of card where all the documents are written from where they've come, their date of entry in our country, their date of birth, their mother's name.

SULLIVAN: The goal, he says, is to register all the Rohingya who've come to Bangladesh from Myanmar, including roughly 300,000 who fled previous waves of violence.

REZA: Initially, we are registering the newcomers who have come last month. Later on, we'll do all the old one also so all the Rohingyas who've been residing in our country for a few years back.

SULLIVAN: Registering them but not officially as refugees, Bangladesh wary of getting stuck with them permanently. Peter Bouckaert is emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.

PETER BOUCKAERT: And that matters because if they're not registered as refugees, it means that they don't have access to education. They have very limited ability to move around. So we are very concerned about the conditions that they face here.

SULLIVAN: And that ability to move around is getting more limited every day. Just down the road from the Kutupalong camp, a checkpoint manned by about a dozen Bangladesh police, flagging down passing buses, cars and auto rickshaws looking for Rohingya. Additional Superintendent of Police Hasanuzzaman Mollah says this checkpoint is one of nearly a dozen on this road.

HASANUZZAMAN MOLLAH: We are checking so that the Rohingya Muslims cannot move inside the country.

SULLIVAN: You're keeping them here on this side, basically. You don't want them getting past this point into the rest of Bangladesh.

MOLLAH: Right, right.

SULLIVAN: It's a political issue but a security one as well. Some of the Rohingya already here fleeing previous waves of violence accused of involvement in the smuggling and drug trades. Even more important, Bangladesh doesn't want its own Islamist extremists, some with ties to transnational terror groups, exploiting the new arrivals.

ELLIOTT BRENNAN: One of my big fears now is that a lot of these groups with ties come in and pick up recruits from those communities.

SULLIVAN: Southeast Asia security analyst Elliot Brennan.

BRENNAN: Maybe not taking them to Myanmar but taking them back to different theaters. And as a result, we have a general recruitment body as the situation deteriorates in camps and people become more desperate.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime, religious hard-liners in Muslim-majority Bangladesh are stirring the pot, some calling to arm the Rohingya, others even talking about war with their Buddhist-majority neighbor, creating more political problems for a government that says it now plans to move all the Rohingya to a new mega camp incorporating most of the existing informal ones.

But the immediate concern today is just providing enough food, water and sanitation for the new arrivals. How they're treated once that's sorted is another matter. And Bangladesh remains the only country that's taken the Rohingya in. No others have offered to share that burden. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox's Bazar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESMERINE'S "PAS TROP PAS TROPES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.