COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh from escalating fighting in Myanmar face the growing danger of sickness and attempts by the Bangladesh authorities to send them home, despite a UN plea that they be allowed to seek shelter.
A series of coordinated attacks by Rohingya militants on security forces in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine state on Friday has triggered a fresh exodus to Bangladesh of villagers trying to escape the violence.
At least 109 people have been killed in the clashes in Myanmar, most of them militants but including members of the security forces and civilians.
Bangladesh’s border guards are trying to block the Rohingya from entering the country and send back those who have made it across the frontier.
Border guards told Reuters they had sent about 550 Rohingya back across the Naf river that separates the two countries since Monday, despite an appeal by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for Dhaka to allow Rohingya to seek safety.
Bangladesh is already host to more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar since the early 1990s and Dhaka has insisted it could not accept any more.
Still, an estimated 5,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh over the past few days, most slipping in at night over the land border.
Some 4,000 more, however, are stranded in the no man’s land between the two countries near Taung Bro village, where temporary shelters stretched for several hundred metres on a narrow strip between the Naf river and Myanmar’s border fence.
Reuters reporters at saw women, some carrying children and the sick, fording the river, which at that location is less than 10 metres wide. Bangladeshi border guards permitted about half a dozen people at a time to cross to access a pile of donated medicines.
“We came here out of fear for our lives, but we can’t cross. So we don’t know what to do,” said Aung Myaing, from Taung Bro Let Way village, standing knee-deep in the river.
He said the military and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists were looting and setting fires to their villages, including by using grenade launchers.
When asked about insurgents he said: “We didn’t see them, we have no relation to them. But Myanmar doesn’t distinguish between the terrorists and civilians. They are hunting all the Rohingya.”
Many Rohingya trying to enter Bangladesh sick and at least six have died after making the crossing, an aid worker said, adding that fear of being caught and sent back meant some refused to seek help.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries. They are marginalized and their communities occasionally subjected to communal violence.
A Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which Myanmar has declared a terrorist organisation, claimed responsibility for the Friday attacks. It was also behind a similar, though smaller, series of attacks in October, which also triggered a tough Myanmar army response.
The treatment of about 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar has become the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been accused by Western critics of not speaking out on behalf of a minority who have long complained of persecution.
Myanmar said late on Monday that a total of 45 insurgent bombs went off on Sunday and Monday. It also blamed the insurgents for torching seven villages, one outpost, and two parts of the large town of Maungdaw.
An army source in Rakhine told Reuters that troops were hunting down insurgents across the region, clearing landmines and evacuating non-Muslims and government staff.
The government continued a mass evacuation of thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists from the area, where they are a minority, to larger towns, police stations and army bases.
Nearly 400 residents including civil servants, left in two boats from the town of Buthidaung for the state capital Sittwe on Tuesday morning, with hundreds more looking to flee, sources said.
“All the people want to follow the army to get out of here. We have no cooking oil, we have no vegetables, we only have rice and people are in poor health,” Maung Thein Hla, a Rakhine resident stranded in the village of Taman Thar, told Reuters.
Satellite imagery analysed by New York-based Human Rights Watch showed widespread burnings in at least 10 areas in northern Rakhine since the Friday raids, the group said.
The army source said the insurgents had produced a large number of landmines and were ambushing troops before quickly vanishing into the forests and mountains.
“This is their region. Any village can be their base camp – any mosque can be their headquarters,” he said. “We cannot distinguish who are insurgents or who are villagers.”