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Bangladesh restricts movement of 400,000 Rohingya refugees

Fears arise that thousands of Rohingya Muslims may move from border and overwhelm impoverished Bangladesh
Rohingya Muslim refugee children wait for medical treatment at Jalpatoli refugee camp in 'no mans land' between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Gumdhum district on Saturday (AFP)

By Shafiqul Alam

Bangladesh restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees on Saturday, banning them from leaving overcrowded border areas where more than 400,000 who have fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar are living in squalid conditions.

The tough new measures come as Dhaka struggles to cope with the scale of the "unprecedented crisis", and as Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina heads for the UN General Assembly to plead for global help.

Conditions are already worsening in Bangladesh's southeastern border district of Cox's Bazar, where the majority of refugees are living in desperate circumstances after fleeing Myanmar's violence-wracked Rakhine state.

Dozens of refugees were found by authorities in three towns hundreds of kilometres from the Myanmar frontier, stoking fears that thousands of newly arrived Rohingya Muslims could move from the border region and overwhelm the mainland of impoverished Bangladesh.

Police said they have issued an order banning the Rohingya refugees from leaving the areas and camps the government has designated for them in the border district.

"They should stay in the designated camps until they return to their country," Sahely Ferdous, a police spokeswoman, said in a statement. "They cannot travel from one place to another by roads, railways or waterways."

Rohingya were asked not to take shelter in the homes of friends or acquaintances, while locals have been asked not to rent houses to the refugees, and bus and lorry drivers requested not to transport the Rohingya, she said.

Police check posts and surveillance have been set up in key transit points to stop refugees travelling to other parts of the country. 

The restrictions were announced as the United Nations said on Saturday the total number of people to have entered Bangladesh in the past month has reached 409,000, a leap of 18,000 in a day.

Hasina left for the UN meeting a day after her government summoned the Myanmar envoy for the third time to protest against its neighbour's actions.

Pressure on Myanmar

Hasina plans to demand more pressure on Myanmar during talks in New York. She will speak at the United Nations on Thursday.

"She will seek immediate cessation of violence in Rakhine state in Myanmar and ask the UN secretary general to send a fact-finding mission to Rakhine," a spokesman for the prime minister, Nazrul Islam, told AFP.

"She will also call the international community and the UN to put pressure on Myanmar for the repatriation of all the Rohingya refugees to their homeland in Myanmar," he said.

Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali said: "We will continue international pressure on the Myanmar government to immediately end its ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya."

In Paris, several hundred people including members of the Rohingya diaspora protested near the Eiffel Tower on Saturday to demand international intervention and denounce Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The demonstrators urged the former dissident to break her silence on the Rohingya crisis. If not, according to one placard, her Nobel Peace Prize should be renamed the "Nobel Massacre and Hatred Prize".

Suu Kyi is due to give a televised address to the nation on Tuesday.

Most Rohingya, who spent days trekking cross-country from Rakhine to reach the Bangladesh border, have arrived to find desperate conditions, with existing camps overflowing, and have instead settled on muddy roadsides.

The UN said two children and a woman were killed in a "rampage" when a private group handed out clothes near a camp on Friday.

The three refugee deaths demonstrated warnings by UN agencies and other relief groups that the crisis could get out of control.

The World Health Organization and UN children's agency on Saturday launched vaccination campaigns against measles, rubella and polio. They estimate that 60 percent of the new arrivals are children.

Many families do not have a shelter over their heads and refugees have been fighting for food and water deliveries.

Refugees pouring in

"The needs are seemingly endless and the suffering is deepening," said UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado.

Outside the giant Balukali camp, Jamila Khatun, 60, sat under a blue plastic bin bag held up by bamboo poles with her children and grandchildren as she recounted her journey to Bangladesh.

She said she handed over her jewellery to a Bangladesh boatman two days ago to get across the river frontier from Myanmar.

"We walked by night for three or four days to avoid the military and then came over by boat.

"We don't know what we will do or where we will live but if people here feed us we will stay. We don't want to go back," she told AFP.

Nur Khan Liton, a respected Bangladeshi rights activist working with the refugees in Cox's Bazar, told AFP: "Refugees are still pouring in. But there is no attempt to bring discipline and order in the aid management."

Liton said the Rohingya "have become victims of muggings and extortion" and that cases of diarrhoea are spreading. "I heard that one Rohingya boy has died of diarrhoea."

The government has put the army in charge of ferrying foreign relief aid from airports to Cox's Bazar. It also plans to build 14,000 shelters, which it hopes will be enough for 400,000 people. 

Hasina has ordered the shelters erected within 10 days, Bangladesh's disaster management secretary Shah Kama told AFP.

The authorities have sent police reinforcements to Cox's Bazar to protect Buddhist temples in case of a radical Muslim backlash.

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