The number of Rohingya Muslims killed during and after the Myanmar military’s “clearance operations” is likely above 10,000, according to medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
The estimate is based on surveys of surviving refugees in Bangladesh and is the first attempt to quantify the number of fatalities since early September, when Myanmar authorities said 394 Rohingya had died, claiming the casualties were mostly militants.
Since then, Myanmar has blocked almost all international access to northern Rakhine state, making any reliable estimate impossible.
MSF says it conducted six surveys of refugees escaping the violence, who overall reported eight deaths for every 10,000 fleeing.
“Extrapolating the data, essentially we can say that you know, our most conservative estimate is that between 9,000 and 13,700 people died,” MSF Australia Executive Director Paul McPhun told the ABC.
He said about 71 per cent died violent deaths, “so they were shot, they were burnt to death and clearly you know this was the result of the military campaign during that period”.
The rest died of starvation or other causes fleeing the violence, MSF said.
The organisation also said at least 1,000 children under the age of five were among the casualties.
The MSF figures come amid continued debate about whether refugees can be returned to Myanmar, after that country struck a deal with Bangladesh to accept them back.
“We are very very worried … that there could be a process of forcible return, so number one we’re calling that any program of return is something the Rohingya enter into voluntarily,” Mr McPhun said.
“To do so, they need to feel safe and secure that they’re not going to face this kind of violence on their return.”
‘Life has come to a halt’
On Wednesday the Red Cross, which has been allowed to operate in northern Rakhine, provided rare insight about what conditions are like for those who remain.
“Life has stopped in its tracks,” said ICRC Operations Director Dominic Stillhart from Geneva, having recently returned from the area.
“People are simply scared to even leave their villages, access their fields, go to the markets, and there are hardly any people moving around, and you can really see that life has come to a halt.”
Particularly sensitive had been the suggestion from some Myanmar military sources — denied by Myanmar’s democratic leadership — that returning Rohingya could be placed in camps, instead of returned to their villages.
A number of aid agencies have even vowed to withhold humanitarian assistance if that happens.
MSF’s Paul McPhun described the idea of camps as “unacceptable” and said prior experience showed this would only exacerbate the tension between ethnic Burmese and the still-stateless Rohingya.
“The idea of repatriating thousands of Rohingya back into Rakhine state, but instead of providing them safety and security, they’re going to be interred in displaced camps… that’s completely unacceptable,” he said.
“Unless this fundamental, underlying issue of violence against this particular ethnic group is addressed, then the political conditions for people to return absolutely don’t exist,” he said.