Special Report: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village

Rehana Khatun, whose husband Mohammed Nur was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture with her child at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 19, 2018. Picture taken January 19, 2018.

By Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski

INN DIN, Myanmar (Reuters) – Bound together, the 10 Rohingya Muslim captives watched their Myanmar Buddhist neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept. 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops, two of the gravediggers said.

“One grave for 10 people,” said Soe Chay, 55, a retired soldier from Inn Din’s Rakhine Buddhist community who said he helped dig the pit and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead.”

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017.

A scrap of fabric is seen in a shallow grave in Inn Din December 8, 2017. Picture taken December 8, 2017. REUTERS

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October.

The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings aimed at rubbing them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

Rohingya trace their presence in Rakhine back centuries. But most Burmese consider them to be unwanted immigrants from Bangladesh; the army refers to the Rohingya as “Bengalis.” In recent years, sectarian tensions have risen and the government has confined more than 100,000 Rohingya in camps where they have limited access to food, medicine and education.

Reuters has pieced together what happened in Inn Din in the days leading up to the killing of the 10 Rohingya – eight men and two high school students in their late teens.

Until now, accounts of the violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state have been provided only by its victims. The Reuters reconstruction draws for the first time on interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.

This account also marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel themselves. Members of the paramilitary police gave Reuters insider descriptions of the operation to drive out the Rohingya from Inn Din, confirming that the military played the lead role in the campaign.

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM A MASSACRE

The slain men’s families, now sheltering in Bangladesh refugee camps, identified the victims through photographs shown to them by Reuters. The dead men were fishermen, shopkeepers, the two teenage students and an Islamic teacher.

Three photographs, provided to Reuters by a Buddhist village elder, capture key moments in the massacre at Inn Din, from the Rohingya men’s detention by soldiers in the early evening of Sept. 1 to their execution shortly after 10 a.m. on Sept. 2. Two photos – one taken the first day, the other on the day of the killings – show the 10 captives lined up in a row, kneeling. The final photograph shows the men’s bloodied bodies piled in the shallow grave.

 

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel in Inn Din village September 1, 2017. Handout via REUTERS

The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters. The reporters, Burmese citizens Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine.

Then, on Jan. 10, the military issued a statement that confirmed portions of what Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were preparing to report, acknowledging that 10 Rohingya men were massacred in the village. It confirmed that Buddhist villagers attacked some of the men with swords and soldiers shot the others dead.

The statement coincided with an application to the court by prosecutors to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, which dates back to the time of colonial British rule. The charges carry a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

But the military’s version of events is contradicted in important respects by accounts given to Reuters by Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim witnesses. The military said the 10 men belonged to a group of 200 “terrorists” that attacked security forces. Soldiers decided to kill the men, the army said, because intense fighting in the area made it impossible to transfer them to police custody. The army said it would take action against those involved.

Buddhist villagers interviewed for this article reported no attack by a large number of insurgents on security forces in Inn Din. And Rohingya witnesses told Reuters that soldiers plucked the 10 from among hundreds of men, women and children who had sought safety on a nearby beach.

Scores of interviews with Rakhine Buddhist villagers, soldiers, paramilitary police, Rohingya Muslims and local administrators further revealed:

– The military and paramilitary police organized Buddhist residents of Inn Din and at least two other villages to torch Rohingya homes, more than a dozen Buddhist villagers said. Eleven Buddhist villagers said Buddhists committed acts of violence, including killings. The government and army have repeatedly blamed Rohingya insurgents for burning villages and homes.

– An order to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets was passed down the command chain from the military, said three paramilitary police officers speaking on condition of anonymity and a fourth police officer at an intelligence unit in the regional capital Sittwe. Security forces wore civilian clothes to avoid detection during raids, one of the paramilitary police officers said.

– Some members of the paramilitary police looted Rohingya property, including cows and motorcycles, in order to sell it, according to village administrator Maung Thein Chay and one of the paramilitary police officers.

– Operations in Inn Din were led by the army’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, supported by the paramilitary 8th Security Police Battalion, according to four police officers, all of them members of the battalion.

POTENTIAL CRIMINAL CASES

Michael G. Karnavas, a U.S. lawyer based in The Hague who has worked on cases at international criminal tribunals, said evidence that the military had organized Buddhist civilians to commit violence against Rohingya “would be the closest thing to a smoking gun in establishing not just intent, but even specific genocidal intent, since the attacks seem designed to destroy the Rohingya or at least a significant part of them.”

Evidence of the execution of men in government custody also could be used to build a case of crimes against humanity against military commanders, Karnavas said, if it could be shown that it was part of a “widespread or systematic” campaign targeting the Rohingya population.

Kevin Jon Heller, a University of London law professor who served as a legal associate for convicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, said an order to clear villages by military command was “unequivocally the crime against humanity of forcible transfer.”

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018

Shuna Khatu, 30, whose husband Habizu was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January 20, 2018. Picture taken January 20, 2018 REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In December, the United States imposed sanctions on the army officer who had been in charge of Western Command troops in Rakhine, Major General Maung Maung Soe. So far, however, Myanmar has not faced international sanctions over the violence.

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has disappointed many former supporters in the West by not speaking out against the army’s actions. They had hoped the election of her National League for Democracy party in 2015 would bring democratic reform and an opening of the country. Instead, critics say, Suu Kyi is in thrall to the generals who freed her from house arrest in 2010.

Asked about the evidence Reuters has uncovered about the massacre, government spokesman Zaw Htay said, “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.” If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said. “And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to our existing law.”

When told that paramilitary police officers had said they received orders to “clear” Inn Din’s Rohingya hamlets, he replied, “We have to verify. We have to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs and Myanmar police forces.” Asked about the allegations of looting by paramilitary police officers, he said the police would investigate.

He expressed surprise when told that Buddhist villagers had confessed to burning Rohingya homes, then added, “We recognize that many, many different allegations are there, but we need to verify who did it. It is very difficult in the current situation.”

Zaw Htay defended the military operation in Rakhine. “The international community needs to understand who did the first terrorist attacks. If that kind of terrorist attack took place in European countries, in the United States, in London, New York, Washington, what would the media say?”

NEIGHBOR TURNS ON NEIGHBOR

Inn Din lies between the Mayu mountain range and the Bay of Bengal, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe. The settlement is made up of a scattering of hamlets around a school, clinic and Buddhist monastery. Buddhist homes cluster in the northern part of the village. For many years there had been tensions between the Buddhists and their Muslim neighbors, who accounted for almost 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 people in the village. But the two communities had managed to co-exist, fishing the coastal waters and cultivating rice in the paddies.

In October 2016, Rohingya militants attacked three police posts in northern Rakhine – the beginning of a new insurgency. After the attacks, Rohingya in Inn Din said many Buddhists stopped hiring them as farmhands and home help. The Buddhists said the Rohingya stopped showing up for work.

On Aug. 25 last year, the rebels struck again, hitting 30 police posts and an army base. The closest attack was just 4 km to the north. In Inn Din, several hundred fearful Buddhists took refuge in the monastery in the center of the village, more than a dozen of their number said. Inn Din’s Buddhist night watchman San Thein, 36, said Buddhist villagers feared being “swallowed up” by their Muslim neighbors. A Buddhist elder said all Rohingya, “including children,” were part of the insurgency and therefore “terrorists.”

On Aug. 27, about 80 troops from Myanmar’s 33rd Light Infantry Division arrived in Inn Din, nine Buddhist villagers said. Two paramilitary police officers and Soe Chay, the retired soldier, said the troops belonged to the 11th infantry regiment of this division. The army officer in charge told villagers they must cook for the soldiers and act as lookouts at night, Soe Chay said. The officer promised his troops would protect Buddhist villagers from their Rohingya neighbors. Five Buddhist villagers said the officer told them they could volunteer to join security operations. Young volunteers would need their parents’ permission to join the troops, however.

The army found willing participants among Inn Din’s Buddhist “security group,” nine members of the organization and two other villagers said. This informal militia was formed after violence broke out in 2012 between Rakhine’s Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, sparked by reports of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. Myanmar media reported at the time that the three were sentenced to death by a district court.

Inn Din’s security group built watch huts around the Buddhist part of the village, and its members took turns to stand guard. Its ranks included Buddhist firefighters, school teachers, students and unemployed young men. They were useful to the military because they knew the local geography, said Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay.

Most of the group’s 80 to 100 men armed themselves with machetes and sticks. They also had a handful of guns, according to one member. Some wore green fatigue-style clothing they called “militia suits.”

ORGANIZING THE ARSON ATTACKS

In the days that followed the 33rd Light Infantry’s arrival, soldiers, police and Buddhist villagers burned most of the homes of Inn Din’s Rohingya Muslims, a dozen Buddhist residents said.

Two of the paramilitary police officers, both members of the 8th Security Police Battalion, said their battalion raided Rohingya hamlets with soldiers from the newly arrived 33rd Light Infantry. One of the police officers said he received verbal orders from his commander to “go and clear” areas where Rohingya lived, which he took to mean to burn them.

The second police officer described taking part in several raids on villages north of Inn Din. The raids involved at least 20 soldiers and between five and seven police, he said. A military captain or major led the soldiers, while a police captain oversaw the police team. The purpose of the raids was to deter the Rohingya from returning.

“If they have a place to live, if they have food to eat, they can carry out more attacks,” he said. “That’s why we burned their houses, mainly for security reasons.”

Soldiers and paramilitary police wore civilian shirts and shorts to blend in with the villagers, according to the second police officer and Inn Din’s Buddhist administrator, Maung Thein Chay. If the media identified the involvement of security personnel, the police officer explained, “we would have very big problems.”

A police spokesman, Colonel Myo Thu Soe, said he knew of no instances of security forces torching villages or wearing civilian clothing. Nor was there any order to “go and clear” or “set fire” to villages. “This is very much impossible,” he told Reuters. “If there are things like that, it should be reported officially, and it has to be investigated officially.”

“As you’ve told me about these matters now, we will scrutinize and check back,” he added. “What I want to say for now is that as for the security forces, there are orders and instructions and step-by-step management, and they have to follow them. So, I don’t think these things happened.”

The army did not respond to a request for comment.

A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”

The night watchman San Thein, a leading member of the village security group, said troops first swept through the Muslim hamlets. Then, he said, the military sent in Buddhist villagers to burn the houses.

“We got the kerosene for free from the village market after the kalars ran away,” he said, using a Burmese slur for people from South Asia.

A Rakhine Buddhist youth said he thought he heard the sound of a child inside one Rohingya home that was burned. A second villager said he participated in burning a Rohingya home that was occupied.

“I STARTED HACKING HIM WITH A SWORD”

Soe Chay, the retired soldier who was to dig the grave for the 10 Rohingya men, said he participated in one killing. He told Reuters that troops discovered three Rohingya men and a woman hiding beside a haystack in Inn Din on Aug. 28. One of the men had a smartphone that could be used to take incriminating pictures.

The soldiers told Soe Chay to “do whatever you want to them,” he said. They pointed out the man with the phone and told him to stand up. “I started hacking him with a sword, and a soldier shot him when he fell down.”

Similar violence was playing out across a large part of northern Rakhine, dozens of Buddhist and Rohingya residents said.

Data from the U.N. Operational Satellite Applications Programme shows scores of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state burned in an area stretching 110 km. New York-based Human Rights Watch says more than 350 villages were torched over the three months from Aug. 25, according to an analysis of satellite imagery.

In the village of Laungdon, some 65 km north of Inn Din, Thar Nge, 38, said he was asked by police and local officials to join a Buddhist security group. “The army invited us to burn the kalar village at Hpaw Ti Kaung,” he said, adding that four villagers and nearly 20 soldiers and police were involved in the operation. “Police shot inside the village so all the villagers fled and then we set fire to it. Their village was burned because police believed the villagers supported Rohingya militants – that’s why they cleaned it with fire.”

A Buddhist student from Ta Man Tha village, 15 km north of Laungdon, said he too participated in the burning of Rohingya homes. An army officer sought 30 volunteers to burn “kalar” villages, said the student. Nearly 50 volunteered and gathered fuel from motorbikes and from a market.

“They separated us into several groups. We were not allowed to enter the village directly. We had to surround it and approach the village that way. The army would shoot gunfire ahead of us and then the army asked us to enter,” he said.

After the Rohingya had fled Inn Din, Buddhist villagers took their property, including chickens and goats, Buddhist residents told Reuters. But the most valuable goods, mostly motorcycles and cattle, were collected by members of the 8th Security Police Battalion and sold, said the first police officer and Inn Din village administrator Maung Thein Chay. Maung Thein Chay said the commander of the 8th Battalion, Thant Zin Oo, struck a deal with Buddhist businessmen from other parts of Rakhine state and sold them cattle. The police officer said he had stolen four cows from Rohingya villagers, only for Thant Zin Oo to snatch them away.

Reached by phone, Thant Zin Oo did not comment. Colonel Myo Thu Soe, the police spokesman, said the police would investigate the allegations of looting.

THE VICTIMS ARE CHOSEN

By Sept. 1, several hundred Rohingya from Inn Din were sheltering at a makeshift camp on a nearby beach. They erected tarpaulin shelters to shield themselves from heavy rain.

Among this group were the 10 Rohingya men who would be killed the next morning. Reuters has identified all of the 10 by speaking to witnesses among Inn Din’s Buddhist community and Rohingya relatives and witnesses tracked down in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Five of the men, Dil Mohammed, 35, Nur Mohammed, 29, Shoket Ullah, 35, Habizu, 40, and Shaker Ahmed, 45, were fishermen or fish sellers. The wealthiest of the group, Abul Hashim, 25, ran a store selling nets and machine parts to fishermen and farmers. Abdul Majid, a 45-year-old father of eight, ran a small shop selling areca nut wrapped in betel leaves, commonly chewed like tobacco. Abulu, 17, and Rashid Ahmed, 18, were high school students. Abdul Malik, 30, was an Islamic teacher.

According to the statement released by the army on Jan. 10, security forces had gone to a coastal area where they “were attacked by about 200 Bengalis with sticks and swords.” The statement said that “as the security forces opened fire into the sky, the Bengalis dispersed and ran away. Ten of them were arrested.”

Three Buddhist and more than a dozen Rohingya witnesses contradict this version of events. Their accounts differ from one another in some details. The Buddhists spoke of a confrontation between a small group of Rohingya men and some soldiers near the beach. But there is unanimity on a crucial point: None said the military had come under a large-scale attack in Inn Din.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay referred Reuters to the army’s statement of Jan. 10 and declined to elaborate further. The army did not respond to a request for comment.

The Rohingya witnesses, who were on or near the beach, said Islamic teacher Abdul Malik had gone back to his hamlet with his sons to collect food and bamboo for shelter. When he returned, a group of at least seven soldiers and armed Buddhist villagers were following him, these witnesses said. Abdul Malik walked towards the watching Rohingya Muslims unsteadily, with blood dripping from his head. Some witnesses said they had seen one of the armed men strike the back of Abdul Malik’s head with a knife.

Then the military beckoned with their guns to the crowd of roughly 300 Rohingya to assemble in the paddies, these witnesses said. The soldiers and the Rohingya, hailing from different parts of Myanmar, spoke different languages. Educated villagers translated for their fellow Rohingya.

“I could not hear much, but they pointed toward my husband and some other men to get up and come forward,” said Rehana Khatun, 22, the wife of Nur Mohammed, one of the 10 who were later slain. “We heard they wanted the men for a meeting. The military asked the rest of us to return to the beach.”

FRESH CLOTHES AND A LAST MEAL

Soldiers held and questioned the 10 men in a building at Inn Din’s school for a night, the military said. Rashid Ahmed and Abulu had studied there alongside Rakhine Buddhist students until the attacks by Rohingya rebels in October 2016. Schools were shut temporarily, disrupting the pair’s final year.

“I just remember him sitting there and studying, and it was always amazing to me because I am not educated,” said Rashid Ahmed’s father, farmer Abdu Shakur, 50. “I would look at him reading. He would be the first one in the family to be educated.”

A photograph, taken on the evening the men were detained, shows the two Rohingya students and the eight older men kneeling on a path beside the village clinic, most of them shirtless. They were stripped when first detained, a dozen Rohingya witnesses said. It isn’t clear why. That evening, Buddhist villagers said, the men were “treated” to a last meal of beef. They were provided with fresh clothing.

On Sept. 2, the men were taken to scrubland north of the village, near a graveyard for Buddhist residents, six Buddhist villagers said. The spot is backed by a hill crested with trees. There, on their knees, the 10 were photographed again and questioned by security personnel about the disappearance of a local Buddhist farmer named Maung Ni, according to a Rakhine elder who said he witnessed the interrogation.

Reuters was not able to establish what happened to Maung Ni. According to Buddhist neighbors, the farmer went missing after leaving home early on Aug. 25 to tend his cattle. Several Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya villagers told Reuters they believed he had been killed, but they knew of no evidence connecting any of the 10 men to his disappearance. The army said in its Jan. 10 statement that “Bengali terrorists” had killed Maung Ni, but did not identify the perpetrators.

Two of the men pictured behind the Rohingya prisoners in the photograph taken on the morning of Sept. 2 belong to the 8th Security Police Battalion. Reuters confirmed the identities of the two men from their Facebook pages and by visiting them in person.

One of the two officers, Aung Min, a police recruit from Yangon, stands directly behind the captives. He looks at the camera as he holds a weapon. The other officer, police Captain Moe Yan Naing, is the figure on the top right. He walks with his rifle over his shoulder.

The day after the two Reuters reporters were arrested in December, Myanmar’s government also announced that Moe Yan Naing had been arrested and was being investigated under the 1923 Official Secrets Act.

Aung Min, who is not facing legal action, declined to speak to Reuters.

VENGEANCE FOR A MISSING FARMER

Three Buddhist youths said they watched from a hut as the 10 Rohingya captives were led up a hill by soldiers towards the site of their deaths.

One of the gravediggers, retired soldier Soe Chay, said Maung Ni’s sons were invited by the army officer in charge of the squad to strike the first blows.

The first son beheaded the Islamic teacher, Abdul Malik, according to Soe Chay. The second son hacked another of the men in the neck.

“After the brothers sliced them both with swords, the squad fired with guns. Two to three shots to one person,” said Soe Chay. A second gravedigger, who declined to be identified, confirmed that soldiers had shot some of the men.

In its Jan. 10 statement, the military said the two brothers and a third villager had “cut the Bengali terrorists” with swords and then, in the chaos, four members of the security forces had shot the captives. “Action will be taken against the villagers who participated in the case and the members of security forces who broke the Rules of Engagement under the law,” the statement said. It didn’t spell out those rules.

Tun Aye, one of the sons of Maung Ni, has been detained on murder charges, his lawyer said on Jan. 13. Contacted by Reuters on Feb. 8, the lawyer declined to comment further. Reuters was unable to reach the other brother.

In October, Inn Din locals pointed two Reuters reporters towards an area of brush behind the hill where they said the killings took place. The reporters discovered a newly cut trail leading to soft, recently disturbed earth littered with bones. Some of the bones were entangled with scraps of clothing and string that appeared to match the cord that is seen binding the captives’ wrists in the photographs. The immediate area was marked by the smell of death.

Reuters showed photographs of the site to three forensic experts: Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights; Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations; and Luis Fondebrider, president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who investigated the graves of those killed under Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. All observed human remains, including the thoracic part of a spinal column, ribs, scapula, femur and tibia. Pounder said he couldn’t rule out the presence of animal bones as well.

The Rakhine Buddhist elder provided Reuters reporters with a photograph which shows the aftermath of the execution. In it, the 10 Rohingya men are wearing the same clothing as in the previous photo and are tied to each other with the same yellow cord, piled into a small hole in the earth, blood pooling around them. Abdul Malik, the Islamic teacher, appears to have been beheaded. Abulu, the student, has a gaping wound in his neck. Both injuries appear consistent with Soe Chay’s account.

Forensic pathologist Fondebrider reviewed this picture. He said injuries visible on two of the bodies were consistent with “the action of a machete or something sharp that was applied on the throat.”

Some family members did not know for sure that the men had been killed until Reuters returned to their shelters in Bangladesh in January.

“I can’t explain what I feel inside. My husband is dead,” said Rehana Khatun, wife of Nur Mohammed. “My husband is gone forever. I don’t want anything else, but I want justice for his death.”

In Inn Din, the Buddhist elder explained why he chose to share evidence of the killings with Reuters. “I want to be transparent on this case. I don’t want it to happen like that in future.”

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski; editing by Janet McBride, Martin Howell and Alex Richardson.)

At least 43,000 Cameroonian refugees flee to Nigeria: local aid officials

A still image taken from a video shot on December 9, 2017 shows Cameroonian refugees standing outside a center in Agbokim Waterfalls village, which borders on Cameroon, Nigeria.

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 43,000 Cameroonians have fled as refugees to Nigeria to escape a crackdown by the government on Anglophone separatists, local aid officials said on Thursday.

The figure is almost three times as high as that given by the United Nations and Nigerian officials two weeks ago.

Cameroon is a majority French-speaking country but two southwestern regions bordering Nigeria are Anglophone. Last October, separatists declared independence for a state they want to create called Ambazonia, sparking a military crackdown by the government of President Paul Biya.

In Nigeria’s Cross River state, which borders southwest Cameroon, more than 33,000 Cameroonians have taken refuge from violence, John Inaku, director general of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told Reuters by phone.

In neighboring Benue state, there are 10,216 refugees, said Emmanuel Shior, director general of the regional SEMA.

Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency had said more than 8,000 refugees were in Cross River state.

Explaining the disparity, Inaku told Reuters the UN agency was only registering people in Cross River coming in through conventional routes.

“This is a war situation and refugees are trooping in by the minute through the bush paths, rivers and every other unconventional routes open to them,” he said.

“During our advocacy to our border communities we told them to allow the refugees in and not be hostile to them so our communities have been receiving them warmly and accommodating them. These are very remote areas, hard to reach without good roads,” Inaku said.

Inaku said community facilities were becoming overstretched and so people were getting hostile toward the refugees, who were in “deplorable condition”, hungry and in need of medicine.

The Benue SEMA director general said the agency had also had difficulty counting refugees because they were in remote areas.

Early on Thursday, gunmen crossed from Nigeria to attack a border post in Cameroon’s southwest, security force witnesses said, with the incident likely to further damage relations between the neighbors.

The separatists pose the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of Biya, who will seek re-election this year. The conflict is also fuelling tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Cameroonian military officials and pro-government media accuse Nigeria of sheltering the insurgents, who since last year have waged a guerrilla campaign to establish an independent homeland for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

More Rohingya flee Myanmar as Bangladesh prepares to start repatriation

Rohingya refugees line up for daily essentials distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018.

By Zeba Siddiqui

TEKNAF, Bangladesh (Reuters) – More than 100 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Wednesday, with the latest refugees saying army operations are continuing in troubled Rakhine State, raising doubts about plans to send back 655,500 who had already fled.

Scores more were waiting to cross the Naf river that forms the border, even as Dhaka prepares to start repatriating next week some of the Rohingya who have escaped from what the Myanmar military calls counter-insurgency operations since late August.

Bangladesh and Myanmar said on Tuesday they had agreed to complete the return of the refugees within two years, with the process due to begin on Jan. 23.

The United Nations has described the Myanmar military operations in the northern part of Rakhine, launched in response to attacks by militants on police and soldiers on Aug. 25, as a classic case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

One boat crossed the Naf river carrying 53 people early Wednesday, and another boat arrived from the Bay of Bengal with 60 people Thursday morning, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence official in Dhaka, and aid officials at the sprawling Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar.

Those waiting on the Myanmar side to cross were stuck there because they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen, the recent arrivals said. They said they paid between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat ($20-$30) a person for the night-time trips on rickety boats to Teknaf, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.

Most of the recent arrivals said they came from Sein Yin Pyin village in Buthidaung district, and escaped because they feared they would be picked up by the military if they left their homes to go to work.

LOOTING IN THE FOREST

Mohammad Ismail, 48, and four others said two weeks ago they saw a dead body hanging by a rope in a forest where Ismail used to collect wood to sell at the market.

“After this I never went to the forest again, and all my money was gone, so my family had nothing to eat for three days,” said Ismail.

Myanmar Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesman for the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said “there’s no clearance operation going on in the villages”. But, he added, “security forces are still trying to take control of the area” in northern Rakhine. He declined to elaborate.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.

Myanmar’s military said in October that it was withdrawing soldiers from western Rakhine state.

Villagers from Sein Yin Pyin said a group of soldiers caught around 200 of them sleeping in the forest on their journey to Bangladesh and looted them of their belongings, including rice, phones, solar chargers and money.

They were stopped again later that day at a beach in Dongkhali village, where around 20 soldiers recorded video of them on their smartphones, while questioning the group and urging them to stay.

“Why are you leaving? You are safe here, don’t go. We will give you a car, go back to your village. If you leave, you will not be able to come back again,” Arif Ullah, 20, said the soldiers told the group.

More than two dozen refugees that Reuters interviewed recounted a similar version of events.

“First their men looted us, and then they stopped us again to ask why we were leaving,” said Umme Habiba, 15. “We left because we were scared.”

Fayazur Rahman, a 33-year-old labourer from southern Buthidaung, said 12 soldiers barged into his home two weeks ago and sexually assaulted his 18-year-old sister. “Day by day, things were getting worse,” he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts the new arrivals gave. Myanmar has denied most allegations of abuses leveled against its security forces during the operations in Rakhine.

REPATRIATION START DATE?

In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told Reuters that the deadline of next Tuesday for starting the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar “may not be possible”.

“The return has to be voluntary, safe and dignified,” said the official, who was part of a 14-member team at talks with Myanmar this week about the repatriation.

He said Myanmar would take back 1,500 Rohingya a week, “although our demand was 15,000 per week”, adding the number could be ramped up over the next few months.

They would sheltered in a temporary transit camp in Myanmar before being moved to “houses as per their choices”.

“They (Myanmar) will create all kind of provisions including for their livelihood. We want to make sure there’s a sustainable solution to the crisis,” the official said.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

As Syrian couples say ‘I do,’ Lebanon says ‘No, not quite’

A Syrian refugee woman holds a child in Ain Baal village, near Tyre in southern Lebanon, November 27, 2017. Picture taken November 27, 2017.

By Sarah Dadouch

BEKAA, Lebanon (Reuters) – In a tent in Lebanon surrounded by snow, Syrian refugees Ammar and Khadija were married by a tribal leader from their homeland in a wedding they would soon come to regret.

What they had hoped would be a milestone on the path back to normal life became the start of a bureaucratic nightmare.

One year on, it shows no sign of ending for them, their newly born son or for many other refugees from Syria, whose misery at losing their homes has been compounded by a new fear they may never be able to return.

It is a dilemma with knock-on effects for stability in Lebanon, sheltering more than a million Syrian refugees, and potentially for other countries in the Middle East and Europe they may flee to if tension spills over.

After they had agreed their union with the sheikh in the insulated tent that had become home to Khadija’s family, the newlyweds both spent months digging potatoes in the Bekaa valley, one of Lebanon’s poorest districts, to make ends meet.

Only after they had a baby boy, Khalaf, did they realize the wedding had been a mistake.

When the couple went to register his birth at the local registry, they were told they could not because they had no official marriage certificate.

Without registration, Khalaf is not entitled to a Syrian passport or other ID enabling him to go there. Without proper paperwork, he also risks future detention in Lebanon.

Asked why they did not get married by an approved religious authority, Ammar and Khadija looked at each other before answering: “We didn’t know.”

CATCH 22

Laws and legislation seem very remote from the informal settlements in the northern Bekaa Valley, where Syrian refugee tents sit on the rocky ground amongst rural tobacco fields. Marriages by unregistered sheikhs are common but hard to quantify because authorities often never hear of them.

For whereas in Syria, verbal tribal or religious marriages are easy to register, Lebanon has complex and costly procedures.

You first need to be married by a sheikh approved by one of the various religious courts that deal with family matters, who gives you a contract. Then you have to get a marriage certificate from a local notary, transfer it to the local civil registry and register it at the Foreigners’ Registry.

Most Syrians do not complete the process, as it requires legal residency in the country, which must be renewed annually and costs $200, although the fee was waived for some refugees this year. Now they have had a child, Ammar and Khadija also need to go through an expensive court case.

The casual work Ammar depends on — picking potatoes, onions or cucumbers in five hour shifts starting at 6 am — pays 6,000 LBP ($4) a day, not enough to live on, let alone put aside.

“One bag of diapers costs 10,000 liras,” he said.

Sally Abi Khalil, Country Director in Lebanon for UK-based charity Oxfam, said 80 percent of Syrian refugees do not have valid residency, one of the main reasons why they do not register their marriages, alongside the issue of the sheikhs.

“Babies born to couples who didn’t register their marriage risk becoming stateless,” she said.

Refugees can only legally make money if they have a work permit, which requires legal residency, a Catch 22 situation partially tackled in February when the fee was waived for those registered with the UNHCR prior to 2015 and without a previous Lebanese sponsor.

Lebanon’s Directorate General of Personal Status took another step to help the refugees on September 12, when it issued a memo which waived the parents’ and child’s residency prerequisite for birth registration, it said.

But if you are married by an unauthorized sheikh, which includes all Syrian sheikhs, the process is more complicated, made worse by a clock ticking over the fate of your offspring, whose birth has to be registered within a year.

“In registering marriages, the biggest problem we faced was the sheikh,” said Rajeh, a Syrian refugee, speaking for his community in a village in southern Lebanon. “In Syria, the child would be ten years old and you can register him in one day.”

POLITICAL PRESSURE

If the one-year deadline is missed in Lebanon, parents have to open a civil court case estimated to cost more than one hundred dollars and still requiring legal residency, which Ammar and Khadija, who met in the informal settlement, do not have.

Legal residency becomes a requirement in Lebanon at the age of 15. At that point, many Syrians pull their children from school and do not let them stray far from the house or neighborhood for fear they will be stopped and detained.

More than half of those who escaped the Syrian conflict that began in 2011 are under 18 years old, and around one in six are babies and toddlers, said Tina Gewis, a legal specialist from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Politicians pressured by some Lebanese saying the country has carried too much of the burden of the refugee crisis are pushing harder for the return of the displaced to Syria, raising the stakes since documentation is required for repatriation.

If they have used an unauthorized sheikh, couples are encouraged to redo their marriages, said Sheikh Wassim Yousef al-Falah, Beirut’s sharia (Islamic law) judge, who said the court’s case load had tripled with the influx of Syrian refugees.

But that is not an option for Ammar and Khadija because a pregnancy or the birth of a child rules that option out.

Gewis said that in any case new marriages risked complicating future inheritance or other legal issues and costs were prohibitive, with courts charging up to $110 to register even straightforward marriages by an approved sheikh.

Ziad al Sayegh, a senior advisor in Lebanon’s newly-formed Ministry of State for Displaced Affairs said Beirut was keen to help the refugees overcome their difficulties.

“We don’t want them to be stateless, because if you’re stateless you have a legal problem that will affect the child and affect the host country,” he said.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Detained asylum-seekers win right to sue PNG government for compensation

Makeshift sleeping areas are seen inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, November 15, 2017. Picture taken November 15, 2017.

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A Papua New Guinea court has given hundreds of asylum-seekers who were held for years in a controversial Australian detention center the right to sue the PNG government for compensation, Australian media reported on Saturday.

Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the PNG government to stop the asylum-seekers seeking compensation on Friday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The government had tried to argue that the time frame for such attempts to sue for compensation had passed but the court rejected its application.

“The finding opens the way to a major compensation and also for consequential orders against both the PNG and Australian governments,” Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told Australian Associated Press.

The decision comes two months after the PNG government closed the detention center on remote Manus Island, which had housed about 400 male asylum-seekers.

Conditions in the camp, and another on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, have been widely criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups.

The two camps have been cornerstones of Australia’s contentious immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores.

The policy, aimed at deterring people from making a perilous sea voyage to Australia, has bipartisan political support.

The closure of the Manus island camp, criticized by the United Nations as “shocking”, caused chaos, with the men refusing to leave the compound for fear of being attacked by Manus island residents.

Staff left the closed compound and the men were left without food, water, power or medical support before they were expelled and moved to a transit camp.

Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court declared in 2016 that the detention of asylum-seekers on behalf of the Australian government was illegal and that it breached asylum-seekers’ fundamental human rights.

The asylum-seekers will now go back to court in February to seek orders from Australia and Papua New Guinea for them to be settled in a safe third country.

The United States announced on Friday that it had agreed to accept about 200 more refugees from Manus island and Nauru under a deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Another 50 refugees had already been accepted as part of the deal, under which Australia agreed to accept refugees from Central America. U.S President Donald Trump has called the deal “dumb”.

(Reporting by Alana Schetzer; Editing by Paul Tait)

U.N. envoy urges Security Council to visit Myanmar, Bangladesh

U.N. envoy urges Security Council to visit Myanmar, Bangladesh

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A top U.N. official recounted to the Security Council on Tuesday “heartbreaking and horrific accounts of sexual atrocities” by Myanmar soldiers against Rohingya Muslim women, urging the body to visit the region and demand an end to attacks on civilians.

Pramila Patten, special envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on sexual violence in conflict, said one woman told her she was held by Myanmar troops for 45 days and raped repeatedly, while another woman could no longer see out of one eye after it was bitten by a soldier during a sexual assault.

“Some witnesses reported women and girls being tied to either a rock or a tree before multiple soldiers raped them to death,” Patten told the Security Council.

“Some women recounted how soldiers drowned babies in the village well. A few women told me how their own babies were allegedly thrown in the fire as they were dragged away by soldiers and gang raped,” she said.

Patten said the 15-member Security Council should visit Myanmar – also known as Burma – and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where more than 626,000 refugees have fled to since violence erupted in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State on Aug. 25.

She said that a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate end to violations against civilians in Rakhine state and outlining measures to hold the perpetrators accountable “would send an important signal.”

Myanmar’s army released a report last month denying all allegations of rapes and killings by security forces.

“This is unacceptable,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. “Burma must allow an independent, transparent and credible investigation into what has happened.”

“While we are hearing promises from the government of Burma, we need to see action,” she said.

Myanmar has been stung by international criticism for the way its security forces responded to Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya militants on 30 security posts. Last month the Security Council urged the Myanmar government to “ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine state.”

China’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wu Haitao said the crisis had to be solved through an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh and warned that any solution “reached under strong pressure from outside may ease the situation temporarily but will leave negative after effects.”

The two countries signed an agreement on voluntary repatriation Nov. 23. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman pushed on Tuesday for the United Nations to be involved in any operation to return Rohingya.

“Plans alone are not sufficient. We hope Myanmar will draw upon the wealth of expertise the U.N. can offer,” Feltman told the Security Council.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown)

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil

By Anthony Boadle

BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) – Last August, Victor Rivera, a 36-year-old unemployed baker, left his hometown in northern Venezuela and made the two-day journey by road to the remote Amazonian city of Boa Vista, Brazil.

Although work is scarce in the city of 300,000 people, slim prospects in Boa Vista appeal more to Rivera than life back home, where his six children often go hungry and the shelves of grocery stores and hospitals are increasingly bare.

“I see no future in Venezuela,” said Rivera, who seeks odd jobs at traffic lights in the small state capital just over 200 km (124 miles) from Brazil’s border with the Andean country.

Countries across Latin America and beyond have received a growing number of Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship, crime and what critics call an increasingly authoritarian government.

The once-prosperous country, home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is struggling with a profound recession, widespread unemployment, chronic shortages and inflation that the opposition-led Congress said could soon top 2,000 percent.

At least 125 people died this year amid clashes among government opponents, supporters and police.

As conditions there worsen, nearby cities like Boa Vista are struggling with one of the biggest migrations in recent Latin American history. With limited infrastructure, social services and jobs to offer migrants, Brazilian authorities fear a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

In Roraima, the rural state of which Boa Vista is the capital, the governor last week decreed a “social emergency,” putting local services on alert for mounting health and security demands.

“Shelters are already crowded to their limit,” said George Okoth-Obbo, operations chief for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, after a visit there. “It is a very tough situation.”

He noted the crush of migrants also hitting Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean country to Venezuela’s north, and Colombia, the Andean neighbor to the west, where hundreds of thousands have fled.

Not even Venezuela’s government knows for certain how many of its 30 million people have fled in recent years. Some sociologists have estimated the number to be as high as 2 million, although President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government disputes that figure.

BRAZIL “NOT READY”

Unlike earlier migration, when many Venezuelan professionals left for markets where their services found strong demand, many of those leaving now have few skills or resources. By migrating, then, they export some of the social ills that Venezuela has struggled to cope with.

“They’re leaving because of economic, health and public safety problems, but putting a lot of pressure on countries that have their own difficulties,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

International authorities are likening Venezuela’s exodus to other mass departures in Latin America’s past, like that of refugees who fled Haiti after a 2010 earthquake or, worse, the 1980 flight of 125,000 Cubans by boat for the United States.

In Brazil, Okoth-Obbo said, as many as 40,000 Venezuelans have arrived. Just over half of them have applied for asylum, a bureaucratic process that can take two years.

The request grants them the right to stay in Brazil while their application is reviewed. It also gives them access to health, education and other social services.

Some migrants in Boa Vista are finding ways to get by, finding cheap accommodation or lodging in the few shelters, like a local gym, that authorities have provided. Others wander homeless, some turning to crime, like prostitution, adding law enforcement woes to the social challenges.

“We have a very serious problem that will only get worse.” said Boa Vista Mayor Teresa Surita, adding that the city’s once quiet streets are increasingly filled with poor Venezuelans.

Most migrants in Boa Vista arrive by land, traveling the southward route that is the only road crossing along more than 2,100 kms of border with Brazil.

Arriving by public transport in the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena, they enter Brazil on foot and then take buses or hitch rides further south to Boa Vista.

Staffed only during the day, the border post in essence is open, allowing as many as 400 migrants to enter daily, according to authorities. For a state with the lowest population and smallest economy of any in Brazil, that is no small influx.

“Brazil’s government is not ready for what is coming,” said Jesús López de Bobadilla, a Catholic priest who runs a refugee center on the border. He serves breakfast of fruit, coffee and bread to hundreds of Venezuelans.

Despite a long history of immigration, Latin America’s biggest country has struggled this decade to accommodate asylum seekers from countries including Haiti and Syria. Although Brazil has granted asylum for more than 2,700 Syrians, the refugees have received scant government support even in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s richest state.

A senior official in Brazil’s foreign ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, said the country will not close its borders. Okoth-Obbo said his U.N. agency and Brazil’s government are discussing ways to move refugees to larger cities.

“NOW I CAN SLEEP”

Boa Vista schools have admitted about 1,000 Venezuelan children. The local hospital has no beds because of increased demand for care, including many Venezuelan pregnancies.

In July, a 10-year-old Venezuelan boy died of diphtheria, a disease absent from Roraima for years. Giuliana Castro, the state secretary for public security, said treating ill migrants is difficult because they lack stability, like a fixed address.

“There is a risk of humanitarian crisis here,” she said.

Most migrants in Boa Vista said they do not intend to return to Venezuela unless conditions there improve.

Carolina Coronada, who worked as an accountant in the northern Venezuelan city of Maracay, arrived in Brazil a year ago with her 7-year-old daughter. She has applied for residency and works at a fast-food restaurant.

While she earns less than before, and said she makes lower wages than Brazilians at the restaurant, she is happier.

“There was no milk or vaccines,” she said. “Now I can sleep at night, not worried about getting mugged.”

Others are faring worse, struggling to find work as Brazil recovers from a two-year recession, its worst in over a century.

One recent evening, dozens of young Venezuelan women walked the streets of Caimbé, a neighborhood on Boa Vista’s west side.

Camila, a 23-year-old transsexual, left Venezuela nine months ago. She said she turns tricks for about $100 a night – enough to send food, medicine and even car parts to her family.

“Things are so bad in Venezuela I could barely feed myself,” said Camila, who declined to give her last name.

Rivera, the unemployed baker, one afternoon sheltered from the equatorial sun under a mango tree. He has applied for asylum and said he is willing to miss his family as long as he can wire his earnings from gardening, painting and bricklaying home.

“It’s not enough to live on, but the little money I can send home feeds my family,” he said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle. Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

Rohingya widows find safe haven in Bangladesh camp

By Damir Sagolj

COX’S BAZAR (Reuters) – Dawn hues of pink and purple reveal a dusty valley in Bangladesh’s southern hills quilted with a dense settlement of red tents home to more than 230 women and children grieving for lost husbands and fathers.

They are among more than 625,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh since late August, following a crackdown by the Myanmar military in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants.

Roshid Jan, who walked for 10 days with her five children to Bangladesh after soldiers burned their village, wept when she spoke about her missing husband.

He was accused of being a member of the Rohingya militants and arrested with four other villagers 11 months ago, she said.

She had not seen him or heard about his fate since then.

Aisha Begum, a 19-year-old widow, said her husband was killed by Myanmar soldiers as their band of refugees headed for Bangladesh.

“I was sitting there by his body and just crying, crying, crying,” she said.

“He was caught and killed with knives. I found his body by the road. It was in three pieces,” she cried, recounting the events that brought her to the camp.

(Click http://reut.rs/2BHPPax for a photo essay)

Most Rohingya are stateless and seen as illegal immigrants by Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

The United Nations and United States have described the military’s actions as ethnic cleansing, and rights groups have accused the security forces of atrocities, including rape, arson and killings.

Myanmar’s government has denied most of the claims, and the army has said its own probe found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops.

There are 50 tents and no men in the camp for widows and orphans, the biggest of three sites built with donor funds from Muslim-majority Pakistan in the refugee settlement of Balukhali not far from Bangladesh’s resort town of Cox’s Bazar.

Two makeshift kitchens provide space for cooking in small holes in the ground, a new well is being dug to supplement a water pump, and a big tent serves for prayers.

“For those who can’t pray, we have learning sessions on Monday and Friday in a special room,” said 20-year-old Suwa Leha, who serves as the camp’s unofficial leader.

Praying and reading the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was one of two conditions for admittance set by religious and group leaders, Suwa said. The other was that widows and orphans be selected from among the most vulnerable and needy.

The camp is marooned amid ponds and streams of dirty water left by the washing of clothes and dishes. Behind are thousands of dwellings in a vast refugee camp that sprang up during the crisis.

Still, the women are relieved to have their own space.

“For those with no protection, a camp like this is much safer,” said 22-year-old Rabiya Khatun, who lives there with her son. “No man can enter that easily. Also, the rooms are bigger and we have more chances of receiving some aid.”

Women and girls number about 51 percent of the distressed and traumatized Rohingya population in the Cox’s Bazar camps, the U.N. Women agency said in October.

“Women and children are also at heightened risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse or child and forced marriage,” it added.

Women and adolescent girls aged between 13 and 20 arriving from Myanmar typically had two to four children each, it said, with some of them pregnant.

No relief agencies officially run the camp for the widows and orphans but aid groups and individuals help out.

Rihana Begum lives with her five children in a room that is bare except for a few tomatoes, some religious books and clothes. On a thin mat lies her daughter, ill with fever, but fear of missing food handouts keeps them away from the doctor.

“I’m afraid to miss aid distribution. I can’t afford to miss it,” she said on the day ration cards from the World Food Program were distributed in the camp.

This week, Myanmar said it was finalizing terms for a joint working group with Bangladesh to launch the process of safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees within two months.

That may not be enough to allay Rihana Begum’s fears.

“I’m so afraid that I will never go back to Myanmar,” she said. “I would rather die here.”

(Reporting by Damir Sagolj; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

Trump lifts refugee ban, but admissions still plummet, data shows

Trump lifts refugee ban, but admissions still plummet, data shows

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In late October, President Donald Trump lifted a temporary ban on most refugee admissions, a move that should have cleared the way for more people fleeing persecution and violence to come to the United States.

Instead, the number of refugees admitted to the country has plummeted. In the five weeks after the ban was lifted, 40 percent fewer people were allowed in than in the last five weeks it was in place, according to a Reuters analysis of State Department data. That plunge has gone almost unnoticed.

As he lifted the ban, Trump instituted new rules for tougher vetting of applicants and also effectively halted, at least for now, the entry of refugees from 11 countries deemed as high risk. The latter move has contributed significantly to the precipitous drop in the number of refugees being admitted.

The data shows that the Trump administration’s new restrictions have proven to be a far greater barrier to refugees than even his temporary ban, which was limited in scope by the Supreme Court.

The State Department data shows that the kind of refugees being allowed in has also changed. A far smaller portion are Muslim. When the ban was in place they made up a quarter of all refugees. Now that it has been lifted they represent just under 10 percent. [For graphic on refugee admissions: http://tmsnrt.rs/2AD8MOj]

Admissions over five weeks is a limited sample from which to draw broad conclusions, and resettlement numbers often pick up later in the fiscal year, which began in October. But the sharp drop has alarmed refugee advocates.

“They’re pretty much shutting the refugee program down without having to say that’s what they’re doing,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International. “They’ve gotten better at using bureaucratic methods and national security arguments to achieve nefarious and unjustifiable objectives.”

Trump administration officials say the temporary ban on refugees, and the new security procedures that followed, served to protect Americans from potential terrorist attacks.

Supporters of the administration’s move also argue that the refugee program needed reform and that making it more stringent will ultimately strengthen it.

“The program needed to be tightened up,” said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, who formerly worked in refugee resettlement in Africa. “I’m all for strengthening the vetting, cracking down on the fraud, being really intentional on who we select for this, because I think it protects the program ultimately when we do that.”

A State Department official attributed the drop in refugee admissions to increased vetting, reviews aimed at identifying potential threats, and a smaller annual refugee quota this year of 45,000, the lowest level in decades.

“Refugee admissions rarely happen at a steady pace and in many years start out low and increase throughout the year. It would be premature to assess (the 2018 fiscal year’s) pace at this point,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trump has made controlling immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, citing both a desire to protect American jobs and national security. During the 2016 presidential campaign he said Syrian refugees could be aligned with Islamist militants and promised “extreme vetting” of applicants.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

NEW RULES, MORE INFO

After the ban was lifted the new rules imposed included a requirement that refugees provide 10 years of biographical information, rather than five years, a pause in a program that allows for family reunification, and a “detailed threat analysis and review” of refugees from 11 countries. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said that 90-day review began on Oct. 25, the day after Trump lifted the ban.

Officials have said that during the review period, refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will be allowed in on a case by case basis, but they have also said priority will be given to other applicants.

For each of the last three years, refugees from the 11 countries made up more than 40 percent of U.S. admissions. While nine of the 11 countries are majority Muslim, it is often their religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, who seek asylum in the United States.

And in practice, of the 11 countries only Iran, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria produce refugees who resettle in the United States in meaningful numbers.

Trump administration officials have said the 90-day review does not amount to a bar on refugees from the 11 countries. But just as the review launched, the number of refugees coming from those countries ceased almost entirely.

In the five weeks before the ban was lifted, 587 refugees from the 11 countries were allowed in, despite tough eligibility rules, according to the Reuters review of the State Department data. In the five weeks after Trump lifted the ban, just 15 refugees from those countries were allowed in.

From all countries, 1,469 refugees were admitted to the United States in the five weeks between Oct. 25 and Nov. 28, according to the State Department data. That was 41 percent lower than during the final five weeks of the ban, when nearly 2,500 refugees gained entry.

Just 9 percent of refugees admitted to the United States between Oct. 25 and Nov. 28 were Muslim, and 63 percent were Christian. In the five weeks prior, 26 percent were Muslim and 55 percent were Christian.

More refugees were allowed in during the period the temporary refugee ban was in place because the Supreme Court, in okaying the ban in June, required refugees with “bona fide” ties to the United States be exempted. The new rules have been challenged in court, but no rulings have yet been issued.

IN LIMBO

Each twist in U.S. refugee policy has left Alireza, a gay Iranian refugee living in Turkey, confused, desperate for information, and less hopeful he will ever make it to the United States.

Alireza, 34, had already been interviewed by U.S. officials and was on track for resettlement when Trump issued his first refugee ban in January. He declined to share his last name because his family does not know he is gay, but he shared documents with Reuters on his case to confirm his identity and refugee status.

When Trump’s ban was initially blocked by federal courts, Alireza was able to continue the vetting process and was close to the point of being resettled. Then came the Supreme Court ruling reinstating the ban, and then the new restrictions replacing the ban. As a refugee from one of the 11 countries targeted for additional scrutiny, he is once again in limbo.

Alireza questions the national security logic of the new review. He and his boyfriend of 13 years fled to Turkey in 2014 after facing harassment, beatings and extortion in Iran. Human rights groups say that discriminatory laws in Iran against sexual minorities put them at risk of harassment and violence.

In Turkey, he said, they scrape by with unstable part-time work and feel threatened by what they see as a rise in anti-gay sentiment in Turkish society.

“We ourselves have been hurt by the Islamist system in Iran,” he said in a recent telephone interview from Eskisehir, in northwestern Turkey. “Why would we suffer for three years (in Turkey) so that we could come to America and commit terrorism?”

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

U.N. warns against any hasty returns of Rohingya to Myanmar

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Peace and stability must be restored in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state before any Rohingyas can return from Bangladesh, under international standards on voluntary repatriation, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday.

Some 20,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to Bangladesh in November, and at least 270 so far in December, bringing the total since violence erupted on August 25 to 646,000, according to the UNHCR and International Organization of Migration (IOM).

The two countries have signed an agreement on voluntary repatriation which refers to establishing a joint working group within three weeks of the Nov. 23 signing. UNHCR is not party to the pact or involved in the bilateral discussions for now.

“It is critical that the returns are not rushed or premature,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a briefing. “People can’t be moving back in into conditions in Rakhine state that simply aren’t sustainable.”

Htin Lynn, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said on Tuesday that his government hoped returns would begin within two months. He was addressing the Human Rights Council, where the top U.N. rights official said that Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

The UNHCR has not been formally invited to join the working group, although its Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements is holding talks in Bangladesh, Edwards said, adding that discussions were “still at a very preliminary stage”.

He could not say whether UNHCR was in talks with Myanmar authorities on its role, but hoped the agency would be part of the joint working group.

Edwards, asked whether the two-month time was premature, said: “The return timeline of course is something that we are going to have to look closely at … We don’t want to see returns happening either involuntarily or precipitously and before conditions are ready.”

In all, Bangladesh is hosting a total of more than 858,000 Rohingya, including previous waves, IOM figures show.

“We have had … a cycle of displacement from Rakhine state over many decades, of people being marginalized, of violence, of people fleeing and then people returning,” Edwards said.

“Now this cycle has to be broken, which means that we have to find a way to ensure that there is a lasting solution for these people.”

WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said that it had distributed food to 32,000 people in northern Rakhine in November.

“Everybody agrees that the situation is very dire on ground, that all of the U.N. agencies need more access, that the violence has to stop and that these people can live in safety where they want to live,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)