No promised land: stateless Rohingya live in fear, amid appalling conditions in refugee camps
Up to 30,000 Rohingya have abandoned their homes in Myanmar since early October following crackdown in western Rakhine state
Alam’s short life ended on Saturday in a dark, tattered tent in Bangladesh, the Rohingya child’s skeletal body succumbing to illness contracted while fleeing Myanmar where his stateless people are under attack. He was six months old.
Alam died hours after arriving at makeshift refugee camp close to Teknaf, the gateway to Cox’s Bazar, a poor, densely populated coastal area already home to more than 230,000 Rohingya refugees.
But for the Rohingya, Bangladesh is far from a promised land.
So far little or no aid has been provided for the new arrivals, with Bangladeshi authorities fearing food, medicine and shelter will encourage more to cross the border.
With her child’s body by her side, Alam’s 22-year-old mother Nur Begum describes how a Myanmar army raid that killed her husband and two other children forced her to flee Rakhine State for Bangladesh.
After a three-week journey Begum and her increasingly sick child made it to the camp in Leda, across the Bangladeshi border. But Alam’s journey was at an end.
“I finally had some food in the camp and thought I would be able to feed him,” his distraught mother said. “But he left me before I had the chance.”
Up to 30,000 Rohingya have abandoned their homes in Myanmar since early October, after soldiers poured into the strip of land in western Rakhine state following deadly raids on border posts.
The refugees who have made it to Cox’s Bazar so far have brought with them horrifying stories of gang rape and murder. The Myanmar army flatly denies the allegations.
That Myanmar does not want its more than one million Rohingya population is not in dispute. It refuses them citizenship while many in the majority Buddhist country call the Muslim minority “Bengalis” – shorthand for illegal immigrants.
Bangladesh provides a mixed reception to the Rohingya. Although people around Cox’s Bazar have centuries-long historical ties with the Rohingya, locals increasingly perceive the refugees as a crime-prone nuisance.
Only 32,000 Rohingya are formally registered as refugees. The remaining 200,000 scratch an existence without help from government or charities. And their numbers swell with every crisis across the border in Myanmar.
To avoid more arrivals Dhaka has periodically blocked refugee boats and called for Myanmar to stop the exodus.
Authorities already tightly control aid workers and arrest people who illegally help the minority.
“Bangladesh has said often that it cannot sustain any more refugees, and in fact, has refused to allow humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas because it might be a pull factor,” said Human Rights Watch’s South Asia chief Meenakshi Ganguly.
But she added “people don’t leave their homes, make perilous journeys, simply for free blankets and medicines”.
The country’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan on Friday told reporters that Rohingya arrivals would be treated humanely, but so far no aid has reached the new entrants. That has heaped pressure on pre-existing Rohingya refugee encampments.
“Some 15,000 Rohingya have already been living here in inhuman conditions for years,” said Dudu Mia, a head of a Rohingya camp, explaining 1,000 people new arrivals came last week. “There are days many of us don’t have any food either.”
Conditions are fast-deteriorating, hitting exhausted Rohingya arrivals hard.
For heavily pregnant Siru Bibu, who fled by boat with four children after her husband and other relatives were killed by an army operation, the situation that has greeted them is dire.
“If it goes another week, my children will starve,” she said.
Rumours abound of undercover officials keeping strict tabs on who is giving what to the unregistered arrivals at the camps.
On Thursday, authorities detained and immediately jailed seven people for to up to two months for assisting the Rohingya.
“Anyone trying to help us is warned or being arrested. As a result, the newly arrived refugees are living in fear,” a camp elder said, requesting anonymity.
Driven from Myanmar and unwanted in Bangladesh, traumatised Rohingya refugees are now laying low.
“Police have arrested some of our neighbours and we heard that they were sent back across the border,” Yasmin Akhter, a 25-year-old mother who was only able to bring two of her six children to Bangladesh. “I hope they won’t do it to us ... I don’t want to die.”