Despite Bangladesh’s immigration laws disallowing unregistered entrants from crossing the border into their nation from neighboring countries, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled their homes in Myanmar, seeking refuge in the Southeast Asian nation. A United Nations spokesman, John McKissick, announced on Thursday that the international organization believes the Myanmar government has been ethnically cleansing the Muslim minority group from the Rakhine State.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, launched a massive security operation in the region in October following the attack and murder of nine police officers on border posts in Maungdaw.  A militant group in the area tied to the Rohingya people has been blamed for the attacks, leading to counterinsurgency operations that sealed off the Maungdaw district of the state.

Activists from within the Muslim minority group claim that more than 100 people have already been killed, with hundreds more detained in retaliation for recent attacks on the police.

Officials within the Myanmar government have confirmed reports that Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing the area, claiming that they are setting fire to their own houses as they go to cover their departure. They also contested the United Nation’s claims regarding their counterinsurgency offensive in the area.

Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay, said the U.N. spokesman “should maintain his professionalism and his ethics as a United Nations officer, because his comments are just allegations.” He went on to say, “He should only speak based on concrete and strong evidence on the ground.”

Bangladesh’s foreign ministry reached out to the Myanmar ambassador on Wednesday to express their “deep” concerns about the military operations in the region, as well as the “desperate people” crossing their border to seek safety. Bangladesh formally requested that Myanmar make efforts to “ensure the integrity of its border” through the ambassador’s office.

Satellite images of the area show more than 1,200 homes have been burned in Rohingya villages over the past six weeks. Whether those fires were set by the Myanmar government or the Rohingya Muslims themselves—as the government has claimed—cannot be confirmed because journalists and aid workers have been barred from the Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Although the Myanmar government asserts that the United Nations’ claims are false, McKissick, who serves as the head of the U.N. refugee agency on the Bangladeshi border, seems utterly certain.

According to McKissick, Myanmar security forces have been “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river” into the neighboring nation. He believes the Bangladeshi government is trying to aid the fleeing minority group, but that international relations are complex.

“Now it’s very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar,” he said.

Some of these refugees have gone missing during the treacherous river crossing between nations, but most have sought shelter in refugee camps or even in charitable Bangladeshi homes. “There was a group of people from our village who crossed the river by boat to come here, but suddenly the boat sank,” said Humayun Kabir, the father of three children that have also been missing since making the trek into Bangladesh.

The U.N. claims that over 30,000 people have been displaced, with thousands more being affected by the recent military activity. Some of these fleeing Muslims have refuted government claims that they have been lighting the fires as they flee, stating instead that Myanmar soldiers have been setting fire to homes in an effort to force the Rohingya Muslims out of their nation. In the minds of many Myanmar locals, these Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and are therefore being displaced in order to reclaim territory that shouldn’t be in the hands of the Muslim population.

The U.S. State Department recently requested that the Myanmar government investigate the claims made against their military in the region. They also “renewed” their request that Myanmar reopen the region to the media and aid workers.

Image courtesy of Reuters