UNHCR on ‘full alert’ in new Rohingya exodus

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Thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar on Monday wait by the road where they spent the night between refugee camps, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, yesterday. Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) – Bangladesh border guards reported more than 11,000 Rohingya refugees crossing into their country from Myanmar on Monday, in a sudden surge, the United Nations refugee agency said.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since August 25 after insurgent attacks on security forces triggered a violent government crackdown, but the rate had slowed to about 2,000 refugees per day last week, aid agencies say.

“We’re back in a situation of full alert as far as influxes are concerned. It is a big increase to see 11,000,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said yesterday.

“We have had big numbers coming across by the day over the six weeks of this emergency. So we are back up to approaching some of those peak arrivals. Clearly we have to be prepared for more arrivals,” he said.

Many of the refugees are reported to come from the Buthidaung area in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, which is 20-25 kilometres east of Maungdaw.

“Some said they had fled torching and killings back home; one boy was seen with a big gash across his neck,” Mr Edwards said.

“We don’t know at the moment what is driving this,” he added. “Some of these people have fled their homes several days ago and in some cases two weeks ago, so they moved towards the border before coming across.”

There are also indications of more recent problems. “As you may have seen from media reports which I can’t verify, but there are reports about fires being seen close to the border (and) other problems there,” Mr Edwards said.

Meanwhile, a massive cholera immunisation campaign began yesterday near Cox’s Bazar aimed at protecting newly-arrived Rohingya and host communities from the disease which can be deadly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

Some 900,000 oral vaccine doses will be distributed, including 650,000 in an initial 10-day campaign to be followed by a second round from October 31 targeting 250,000 children between one and five years old, the agency said.

There is a “clear and present risk” of the spread of cholera among the population. “Luckily, we don’t have any confirmed cases of cholera so far,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

Also yesterday, Myanmar launched its first bid to improve relations between followers of different religions.

The party of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi took the first step towards trying to calm communal animosity with inter-faith prayers at a stadium in the biggest city of Yangon, with Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

“This is for peace and stability,” party spokesman Aung Shin said. “Peace in Rakhine and peace
nationwide.”

Pope Francis will meet Myanmar’s top Buddhist monks, its military generals and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November when he visits the country and Bangladesh. According to a full programme of the November 6-December 2 trip released by the Vatican yesterday, the pope will say two Masses in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and one in Bangladesh, which is predominantly Muslim.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit Myanmar and the second to visit Bangladesh.

He arrives in Yangon, the country’s largest city, on November 27 and is scheduled to rest for about 24 hours before heading to the country’s capital Nay Pyi Taw for a day.

There, he will have separate private talks with President Htin Kyaw and Ms Suu Kyi who is effectively the country’s civilian leader.

A senior Vatican official said military leaders are expected to attend a separate, public meeting where the pope will address politicians and diplomats. This is where he is expected to give the keynote speech of the trip.

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