THE WORST REFUGEE CRISIS IN THE WORLD
Ein Bangladesh very so often the tragic human situation of the Rohingyas pushes itself to the forefront of international consciousness. Lately it has been as a result of the Thai authorities forcing hundreds of desperate men out to sea in open boats and leaving them to die. When 220 of these former Burmese refugees, known as Rohingyas, were discovered, and Angelina Jolie talked about their plight, the spotlight was on them again, if only briefly.
Then, the story disappeared, but not the reality of the Rohingyas’ impossible circumstances. These persecuted Muslim refugees come from largely Buddhist Burma, where they have lived for many generations, yet they are stateless; the government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Instead the government makes their lives intolerable in the hopes that the estimated million or so remaining Rohingyas will follow the other 250,000 who have already slipped over the border into the eastern part of Bangladesh. The Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis of the Chittigong region speak a similar language and practise the same religion. So the country has been a natural place to look for sanctuary.
But Bangladesh has enough of its own problems. Beyond being desperately poor, with over 150 million people crammed together on lowlying land in a space smaller than England, it is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. It doesn’t have enough resources to feed and house its own people, let alone to absorb the Rohingyas.
The refugees break down into four categories. The first are the 23,620 official and registered refugees who are housed, fed and looked after by UNHCR (the UN refugee organization). The second are the roughly 5,000 self-settled refugees, those miserable people who have built shelters on the outskirts of Kutupalong, the UN camp. They have nothing and are entitled to nothing. The third type, of which there could be 200,000, are those refugees who have melted into the host community. Many, though, are lured back to the UNHCR camp by the guarantee of regular supplies. This is a source of concern for the government in a country where food insecurity is standard and malnutrition levels are prevalent in 50% to 60% of the general population.
The fourth kind of refugees is also unregistered, but now have shelter, sanitation, health care and water provided by a British-based charity called Islamic Relief. These 500 families lived in inhuman conditions, in the open air, in a mangrove bed, in makeshift shacks that were flooded twice a day by the tidal Naaf River; they were prohibited from moving any further inland by the government.
To help, Islamic Relief asked for 20 acres on which to build a site called Leda, in order to rehouse the 10,000 refugees. The government finally agreed. In order to ensure that the government didn’t change its mind, the forest had to be quickly cleared, the drains dug, 360 latrines put in and 1940 palm leaf structures erected along, all within three months before the rainy season .
While most Rohingyas consider themselves Burmese, they have no desire to return to a place where they face brutal discrimination. Men are often taken by the army and used for forced labour. Once the men go, the women are stranded. Land is routinely confiscated. They are subjected to numerous impossible restrictions, such as not being allowed to leave the village without permission, which also means not being able to sell goods at market. They cannot get married without state authority, and that costs a fortune. They are only permitted to have one child. Women are subjected to sexual violence. There are no schools, so they remain at the bottom of the pile without any means of escape. The Burmese government tells the Rohingyas they are Bangladeshi; the Bangladeshis tell them they are Burmese.
The Rohingyas have come to Bangladesh in two major waves: in 1978 and in 1991, when 250,000 of them flooded across the border and 230,000 were “voluntarily” repatriated. They returned to find their situation unimproved and recrossed the border.
Another option for the Rohingyas is resettlement in third countries. So far 244 of them have been sent to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Ireland, but that strategy has its obvious limitations. The third possibility is local integration — giving the Rohingyas Bangladesh citizenship.
“It’s a political issue,” says Islamic Relief ’s country director, Ahmed Nasr. “Some sort of pressure should be used, and Bangladesh also needs some incentives, maybe more aid.”
Meanwhile the UN is making the case for the Rohingyas to stay in Bangladesh until the conditions in Burma are conducive to their return. The World Food Program has been providing support since the refugees first arrived and plans to spend US$9.6-million over the next two years, providing food and support to the refugees in the official camps.
Something needs to be done, as many of these people have lived in camps for 16 years. They are psycho- logically tired. There are no easy answers but so far neither government is taking responsibility.
In Leda camp people talked to me about the food shortage. The government allows Islamic Relief to provide sanitation, housing and health care, but not food or education. The charity wants the Rohingyas to be self-reliant, urging them to work in the salt fields nearby, or as rickshaw wallahs.
Kabizatul Kubra, a Bangladeshi woman from the local community, says she has sympathy for the Rohingyas. “We’re sad they lost so much; they are also created by Allah, like us, but we are a poor country and they should go back.” Her concerns are that if food is not provided, they will turn to “thieving.” She accused the women of being prostitutes and the men of polluting the water source, but conceded that the community has benefited from the health care centre, which it is also able to use.
There are serious issues facing Leda, despite the efforts made by Islamic Relief. There is not enough water, and there are growing concerns about hygiene and sanitation as the available land is already congested and water resources are declining rapidly. Islamic Relief is damming the canals and, when it rains, using it as a natural reservoir. But this will work only in a few months, during the rainy season. There will be four to five difficult months before that.
Leda may be a well-managed camp — clean and orderly, with a small market, five doctors, a mental health clinic and a therapeutic feeding centre — but in the end it is a refugee camp. A woman I met there, a midwife, said as we walked around the camp followed by dozens of children, “we are just floating here,” unable to start a new life and unable to forget the old one.
Some Rohingya refugees used to live in these makeshift shacks, which were flooded twice a day by the Naaf River.