BANGLADESH: New ID card policy could hit Rohingya asylum-seekers

New ID card will make it even harder for Rohingya men to get work
DHAKA, 29 March 2011 (IRIN) - The introduction of national ID cards may lead to further institutionalized discrimination of Burmese Rohingya asylum-seekers (unregistered refugees) living in southeastern Bangladesh, experts warn.

A report by US-based NGO Refugees International to be released next month is expected to highlight how lack of access to public services and gainful employment for non-ID card holders will contribute to severe food insecurity for the Rohingyas.

The new national ID card, to be rolled out by the government and the World Bank this summer, will replace the 2008 voter registration card which had until now been used unofficially as a means of identification.

“Unregistered Rohingyas can no longer enrol their children in schools or obtain birth registration since the roll-out of the voter registration cards. Without the national ID card, they may also lose access to health services and micro-credit programmes,” Lynn Yoshikawa, report author for Refugees International, told IRIN.

Over 200,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees, who are not eligible for the ID card, are expected to be affected by the scheme, which will be implemented over the next five years.

The new ID cards will state the holder’s occupation. Consequently, many of the jobs that the Rohingya do for survival will now become harder to access, Chris Lewa from the Arakan project, the world’s leading organization on Rohingya refugees, told IRIN.

Over the past year the Bangladesh government has taken steps to regulate workers in the fishing, construction and garment industries, she said.

“With the new ID cards scheme in place, jobs for Rohingya will be officially illegal, pushing wages down further, straining resources and increasing tension between the Rohingya and the locals,” she said.

Rohingyas need an income, says EU report

According to a report by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department, food insecurity in Kutupalong makeshift camp in southeastern Bangladesh will worsen and become an acute and protracted humanitarian crisis if the unregistered refugees are unable to engage in income generating activities and humanitarian access is challenged.

Latest figures from the camp show global acute malnutrition (GAM) to be over 30 percent, reflecting a significant deterioration of the humanitarian situation that needs to be addressed immediately, the report said.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
There are some 28,000 documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
Furthermore, unregistered Rohingya, who had hitherto been working unofficially, can easily be targeted by unsympathetic locals and security forces if they do not have ID cards.

“The police stop the bus on the way back to the [unregistered] camp because they know that we have been working and will have cash in hand. If we don’t pay, they put us in prison,” said 35-year-old Mohammed Selim, a fisherman.

Call for registration

The Bangladesh government needs to make sure it registers the unregistered refugees at the same time as rolling out the national ID cards, Lewa told IRIN.

“The only workable solution is to register the Rohingya and provide them with the right to reside and work in Bangladesh,” she said.

Other countries that also host large populations of Burmese refugees are being more proactive in their approach to solving the issue, according to Yoshikawa.

“In Malaysia, there has been a major change in the attitude towards refugees,” she said.

“The refugees have UN cards, which generally protect them from detention and deportation. The cards don't provide the refugees with the official right to work, but in Malaysia’s case, they need the labour so there's tolerance,” she said.

Despite strong calls from the international community, the Bangladesh government has no immediate plans to register the refugees currently living throughout Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf districts on the border with Myanmar.

Pledged foreign aid to these districts has also been blocked. In January this year, a US$33 million UN Joint Initiative to boost infrastructure in Cox’s Bazar was stalled by the government.

The government has also forbidden third country resettlement of documented Rohingya refugees for the time being, fearing that this might create a pull factor.

Despite several requests, the World Bank declined to respond to IRIN questions on the likely impact of the national ID card policy on Rohingya refugees.

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