National Post (Latest Edition) - - Issues & Ideas - HEIDI KING­STONE Na­tional Post hk­ing­stone@google­

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.

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