Monday, March 9, 2009

The Rohingyas may be among the most miserable refugee populations on Earth, relief workers say. Every so often the tragedy of these outcasts from militarily ruled Burma pushes itself to the forefront of international consciousness.

Most recently, Thai authorities have forced hundreds of desperate men out to sea in open boats and left them there to die. When 220 of these former Burmese refugees were discovered, and Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood star and United Nations Refugee Agency’s goodwill ambassador, talked about their plight, it focused the spotlight on them again, if only briefly.

Then the story disappeared, but not their impossible circumstances. These persecuted and displaced refugees lived in Burma for many generations, yet are stateless. The government refuses to recognize these Muslims as citizens of the largely Buddhist country. Instead, the government makes the lives of this minority intolerable. By doing so, the government hopes the million or so who remain will follow the other 250,000 who have slipped over the border into the eastern part of Bangladesh. (For a report on the plight of Burma’s Christians, see The Washington Times, March 6, p. A-12).

The Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis of the Chittigong region speak a similar language, are physically alike, and practice the same religion. Over the last two decades, they have fled in successive waves, looking for sanctuary.

But Bangladesh has enough of its own problems. It is desperately poor, prone to natural disasters, with more than 150 million people crammed together on low-lying land with few resources to feed and house its own people, let alone absorb the Rohingyas.

The border between the two countries, while guarded, can be crossed in certain places either by boat or simply by foot. The life the Rohingyas seek in Bangladesh is hardly paradise.

The Rohingya refugees break down into four categories - the first are official and registered - 23,620 are housed, fed, and looked after by the U.N. Refugee Agency. Another miserable 5,000 are the “self-settled” and have built shelters on the outskirts of the camps. They have nothing and are entitled to nothing.

The third type, of which there could be as many as 200,000, have melted into the host community. Many, though, are lured back to the U.N. camp by the guarantee of regular supplies. This is a major source of concern for the government in a country where food insecurity is the normal state of affairs and between 50 percent and 60 percent of the general population suffers malnutrition.

The fourth kind of refugees are also unregistered, but now have shelter, sanitation, health care and water provided by the British-based charity Islamic Relief - but no regular food supply. These 500 families lived in inhuman conditions, in the open air, in makeshift shacks flooded twice daily by the tidal Naf River, the natural border between Burma and Bangladesh. They were prohibited from moving any further inland by the government, lest by recognizing them it would have to accept responsibility for them.

In July, Islamic Relief was given the go-ahead to rehouse these 10,000 refugees. Since then, the numbers on the Leda site have swelled to 13,000, bringing new worries.

While most Rohingyas consider themselves Burmese, they have no desire to return. Men are often taken by the army and used as forced labor. Many die. Once the men go, the women are stranded. Land is routinely confiscated. The women are subjected to numerous impossible restrictions. They are not allowed to leave the village without permission, which also means they cannot sell goods at market. They cannot get married without state authority. Women are subjected to sexual violence. With no schools, they remain at the bottom of the pile. The government of Burma tells the Rohingyas they are Bangladeshi, the Bangladeshis tell them they are Burmese.

”At the root of the problem, it’s a political issue,” says Islamic Relief’s country director, Dr. Ahmed Nasr, “which needs international support. Some sort of pressure should be used, and Bangladesh also needs some incentives, maybe more aid.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations is making the case for the Rohingyas to stay in Bangladesh until the conditions in Burma are conducive to their return. That might mean forever. The Bangladesh government theoretically opposes integration of the refugees, but the United Nations advocates fulfilling the refugees’ basic rights.

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 them to be self-reliant, urging them to work in nearby salt fields or as rickshaw wallahs. Members of the equally poor host community resent the desperate Rohingyas for economically undercutting them.

Kabizatul Kubra, a Bangladeshi woman from the local community, says she has sympathy with their plight. “We’re sad they lost so much, but they should go back.” She worries that if food is not provided, they will turn to “thieving.”

Leda may be a well-managed camp, clean and orderly, but in the end it is a refugee camp. It has a small market. Runner beans grow on the roofs. Five doctors are on call. The camp has a mental health clinic and a therapeutic feeding center, and all are equally accessible to the host community.

A midwife, herself a refugee, said as we walked around the camp, “We are just floating here.” They suffer between being unable to start a new life and unable to forget the old one.

Heidi Kingstone is a freelance journalist living in London and has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and South Asia for a number of international publications.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide