DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh has proposed creating “safe zones” run by aid groups for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to stop hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing into its territory following a military crackdown.
The plan, the latest in a string of ideas floated by Dhaka, is unlikely to get much traction in Myanmar, where many consider the Rohingya community of 1.1 million as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. That will leave Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations in the world, with little choice but to open new camps for refugees.
Dhaka sent the proposal to the Myanmar government through the International Committee of the Red Cross to secure three areas in Rakhine, home to the Rohingya community, suggesting that people displaced by the violence be relocated there under the supervision of an international organization, such as the United Nations.
“The logic of the creation of such zones is that no Rohingya can come inside Bangladesh,” said Shahidul Haque, Bangladesh’s foreign secretary, the top civil servant in the foreign ministry.
The Red Cross confirmed that it had passed on the request to Myanmar but said that it was a political decision for the two countries to make.
A Myanmar government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, a mostly Muslim nation of 160 million, from Buddhist-majority Myanmar in recent years.
The decades-old conflict in Rakhine flared most recently on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked several police posts and an army base. Since then, an estimated 270,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, joining more than 400,000 others already living there in cramped makeshift camps since the early 1990s.
There are widespread fears that tens of thousands more could try to cross if the violence doesn’t abate. Recent pictures from the border between the two countries show hundreds of Rohingya men, women and children trying to cross over into Bangladesh on foot and by boat.
The humanitarian crisis next door has left Bangladesh scrambling to deal with people that it does not welcome either.
In recent days, Bangladesh officials have said they plan to go ahead with a controversial plan to develop an isolated, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to temporarily house tens of thousands of refugees, drawing fresh criticism from the international community.
It bowed to pressure on Thursday, with government officials saying that Dhaka would now make another 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land available for camps to house refugees near Cox’s Bazar, where many refugees already live as it is near the border with Myanmar.
“They will be given temporary shelter,” said Kazi Abdur Rahman, additional deputy commissioner of Cox’s Bazar. But Rahman added that the refugees would be fingerprinted and confined to the camp so that they did not mix with the local community.
These measures, however, do not offer a long-term solution to the crisis, and Dhaka says it is getting little support from its neighbor, which has been accused of trying to engineer ethnic cleansing within its borders.
Bangladesh officials said they had proposed joint patrolling along the border but did not receive a response from Myanmar. Earlier this week, Bangladesh lodged a protest after it said Myanmar had laid landmines near the border between the two countries.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate, has come under pressure to halt violence against Rohingya. She has said that her government was doing its best to protect everyone in Rakhine but did not refer specifically to the Rohingya exodus.
“The solution lies in Myanmar. The UN hopes that Myanmar can address the root causes of the problem,” said Shinji Kubo, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh.
Kubo said the Bangladesh government was doing its best by accepting the refugees instead of sending them back.
Bangladesh officials are turning to the international community for help, claiming support from countries such as Turkey, which has promised aid.
On Friday, a Malaysian coast guard official said the country will not turn away Rohingya Muslims and is willing to provide them temporary shelter. But any such voyage would be hazardous for the next few months, because of the annual monsoon.
“The world community must come forward to help them, not by putting pressure on Bangladesh but by putting pressure on Myanmar not to resort to these atrocities and violence,” said H.T. Imam, a senior aide to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“The only solution is to force Myanmar to take back their citizens through international pressure. And we are working with our partners on that,” Imam said.
Besides the creation of internationally-controlled safe zones in Rakhine state, Bangladesh has also mooted creating a buffer zone along the border, where the international community could set up camps and provide for the refugees, the officials said.
Further details of the plan could not be learned.
“We will give aid agencies access. But we are not interested to give them shelter here. We are already overburdened,” said Mostafa Kamal Uddin, Bangladesh’s home secretary.
Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon; Writing by Paritosh Bansal