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Background on Stateless and Starving Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh

Stateless and Starving

Stateless refugees from Burma face death from starvation and disease in makeshift camps because the government of Bangladesh denies them access to humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya — a Muslim ethnic minority — have crossed into Bangladesh since 1991 to escape persecution in Burma, where they have been subjected to systematic and widespread human rights violations, including summary executions, torture, state-sanctioned rape, arbitrary arrest, and forced labor.

The Bangladeshi government has only registered 28,000 Rohingya, who receive protection, humanitarian assistance, and food rations from UN agencies and international NGOs. But since 1993, the government has denied 200,000 subsequent Rohingya arrivals official refugee status, making them ineligible for UN aid and protection. The government of Bangladesh has recently stepped up its own persecution of the Rohingya, possibly in an effort to discourage an influx of new arrivals. Hundreds of refugee have been rounded up, beaten, and forcibly expelled from the country.

Our Investigation

In 2010, a PHR team conducted an emergency health assessment in the makeshift Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh, just across the border from Burma. PHR Deputy Director Richard Sollom and his colleague, emergency physician Parveen Parmar from Harvard University, discovered that camp conditions were among the worst they had ever seen, with people housed in ramshackle huts made of twigs and plastic sheeting, denied food aid, and living beside open sewers.

The team surveyed 100 households at the camp and documented that more than 18% of children below age 5 suffered from acute malnutrition. Child malnutrition rates above 15% indicate a “critical” situation, according to the World Health Organization. More than half the children had had diarrhea in the previous 30 days — a reflection of the camp's unsanitary conditions. Many refugees reported that they had not eaten for two days.

In the emergency report Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh PHR called on the government of Bangladesh to immediately stop arresting refugees and forcing them back across the border. We also sounded an alarm about an ominous campaign of ethnic incitement conducted by Bangladeshi authorities. Our report called for a comprehensive regional response to the Bangladesh government's failure to protect and care for the refugees, as well as to the human rights violations in Burma that have caused some 300,000 Muslim minority Rohingya to flee that country.

“Thousands of Rohingya who fled intolerable persecution in Burma now face equally bleak conditions in Bangladesh, because the government there has refused to recognize their status as refugees. It is unconscionable to leave this vulnerable population stateless and starving.” - Richard Sollom.

>> Read Stateless and Starving: Persecuted Rohingya Flee Burma and Starve in Bangladesh

In 2011, Physicians For Human Rights released the results of our related investigation into alleged human rights violations in Burma in the report Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma’s Chin State. Learn more at

>> Read Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma’s Chin State