Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh amid a fresh exodus from strife-torn Myanmar have described whole villages being emptied and thousands marching to the border as security forces redouble efforts to drive the remaining Muslims from their homes.
More than 500,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled ethnic bloodshed in Myanmar in the past month and numbers are again swelling, with Bangladesh reporting 4-5,000 civilians now crossing the border each day after a brief lull in arrivals.
An estimated 10,000 more have reportedly massed in Myanmar near a crossing point into Bangladesh, and are poised to join the hundreds of thousands of mainly Rohingya refugees eking out survival in wretched camps over the border.
The spike in new arrivals — prompted by what Rohingya say is a fresh drive to purge Muslims still in westernmost Rakhine state — casts doubt on a Myanmar proposal aired this week to start repatriating the persecuted minority.
Rakhine has been emptied of half of its Rohingya population in weeks, and more are on the move as insecurity presses them to leave villages which have so far been spared the worst of the communal violence ripping through the state.
Rashida Begum, who arrived in Bangladesh late Monday, said local officials assured the Rohingya community for weeks they would be safe if they remained in their village.
“(But then) The army came and went door to door, ordering us to leave,” she told AFP of the military sweep in Maungdaw on Friday.
“They said they wouldn’t harm us, but eventually they drove us out and burned our houses.”
Myanmar state media said the fleeing Rohingya had left “of their own accord” despite assurances they would be safe.
“I wanted to stay in my village,” Hasina Khatum, 25, told AFP in the coastal border town of Shah Porir Dwip.
“They (local officials) said ‘don’t go to Bangladesh. Everything will be fine’. We believed them, but nothing improved. Eventually, we had to leave.”
Sumaya Bibi, a softly-spoken Rohingya teenager, described more than a thousand civilians hiding along the riverbank late Monday.
Fazlul Haq, a local councillor in the area, said the flow of boats had almost stopped by late September but has resumed in recent days, bringing scores of Rohingya families reporting threats and intimidation by the army.
The UN said Tuesday that 509,000 refugees had crossed into Bangladesh as of September 30.
The influx began after August 25, when attacks by Rohingya militants spurred a ferocious Myanmar army crackdown that the UN says amounted to “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar’s government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group and considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh.