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Caught between a crocodile and a snake

Rohingya refugee child in Teknaf, Bangladesh: Photo by Tin Soe, Kaladan Press Network.

Rohingya refugee child in Teknaf: Photo by Tin Soe, Kaladan Press Network.


Naomi Pardington
writes about the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

When four-year-old Laila reached the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic in Kutupalong refugee camp she was, as the staff described, almost dead. So severely malnourished and dehydrated, she was having difficulty to walk or even cry. The sores that covered her body oozed with infection as her depleted immune system gave in.

Thirteen-year-old Fatima visibly bared the mark of lack of healthcare. The large tumour on her face was nothing but a small growth on her nose just a few years back. By the time she arrived at the MSF clinic in April 2009, the growth was so big that it blurred the vision in her left eye and blocked the air passage in her nose.

Nine-month-old Jamil nearly lost his arm, from what begun as a small red bump just a few months back. The bump became infected and overtime the wound steadily increased in size. When his parents arrived with Jamil at the clinic, the deadened bone was sticking out of his arm.

Children of unofficial Rohingya refugees, Laila, Fatima and Jamil know what it means to be stateless and deprived of services that many people around the world take for granted. They are among the 22,000 Rohingya people living in grossly unsanitary and crammed conditions in Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp, in southeastern Bangladesh.

Originating from the Rakhine State in western Myanmar, most of the Rohingya refugees have been denied official refugee status by the government of Bangladesh. Out of the estimated 250,000 Rohingyas who fled Myanmar, only a paltry 28,000 men, women and children are officially recognised as refugees and eligible for basic support from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. The others remain stateless, with no one to provide them with food, water, shelter or healthcare.

Over the past year, thousands of unofficial Rohingya refugees have flocked to the makeshift Kutupalong camp, clinging to the perimeter of an official UNHCR camp. They have not been provided with any of the basic assistance afforded to their counterparts residing in the official camp.

The ramifications of being both stateless and without status are evident. “It is one of the worst pictures of poverty I have ever come across. People are living in shelters built with bits of plastic, wood or whatever they can find. They do not even have any utensils to cook food and the sanitation is just appalling,” says Gemma Davies, MSF project coordinator in Kutupalong.

MSF conducted an initial exploratory assessment in Kutupalong camp in March 2009 where team members found over 20,000 highly vulnerable people struggling to survive day to day without the most basic of amenities. 90% of the refugees were found to be severely underfed since they were unable to gather enough food to meet their daily needs. The situation had soared past World Health Organisation thresholds for what constitutes an emergency.

MSF responded immediately by setting up a project offering basic healthcare, treating the severely malnourished children and improving water sources and waste facilities. Within the first month, MSF enrolled over a thousand malnourished children in its therapeutic feeding programme and treated around 4000 children in its outpatients department.

“Prior to MSF’s arrival, these people had little or no access to healthcare. While working at the Kutupalong camp, I have treated some of the worst medical complications I have ever seen. It is immensely sad and frustrating,” says Kylah Taylor, MSF nurse.

In June-July 2009, just months after MSF began its project, Kutupalong camp fell into a full-blown crisis as Bangladeshi authorities resorted to violence and intimidation against the refugees in order to clear the area adjacent to the UNHCR camp. Between June 7 and July 14, the unofficial refugees were threatened, arrested and beaten as their homes were destroyed by the local authorities.

On June 15, MSF treated twenty-seven people, including a newborn child, with violence-related injuries. On July 14, thirty policemen and some local officials destroyed and looted the makeshift refugee camp. In the process, 259 homes were destroyed. “I was working. When I went back to my shelter I found it totally destroyed,” a camp resident recounted. “A police inspector was there with nine or ten people. I asked why they destroyed my house. He showed me a fish cutter and said: ‘One more word and I will cut you.’”

Trapped in a world where they are prevented from supporting themselves and denied any official assistance, unofficial Rohingya refugees are vulnerable to the unscrupulous activities of people manipulating and making profits from their hopes and fears. A large number of these refugees can be found working illegally as cheap labour, incurring the resentment of local communities. In some cases, the small wages earned by these labourers are extorted from them by the locals. Regular harassment by the police, including beatings and detentions, is also widespread. There are also reports of Rohingya women being coerced into commercial sex trade.

The situation in Kutupalong is symptomatic of a far wider crisis, with its root lying across the border in Myanmar. Although they have been living in Myanmar for hundreds of years, Rohingyas are denied citizenship by the country’s military government. Denied their basic human rights, Rohingyas face routine persecution and discrimination in their own land. They are forbidden to marry, to have children or to travel without purchasing government issued licenses that cost a prohibitive amount of money. The fear for life and the absolute loss of dignity of those who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh is evident in their stories.

One Rohingya woman, now a refugee in Bangladesh, described to MSF how she lost her pregnant daughter resulting from the fear of repercussions of an illegal birth, “My daughter was pregnant. To kill the baby, she took a root drink and one of our relatives gave her a rough abdominal massage. She was bleeding badly and having fits. We were scared that the Burmese authorities would force us to pay a huge fine or arrest her because she was pregnant while not officially married. We did not take her to the hospital, instead, we went to the local healer. She died the next day.”

“Over the years I have heard many reasons why people fled from Myanmar. Largely it comes down to fear of being arrested or intimidated. A woman and her three children left following her husband’s arrest, in fear for her family. Another couple – the woman some months pregnant – fled out of fear of the repercussions they would face for being unable to afford the official marriage license, not to mention the child birth license,” says Gabriela Popescu, MSF medical coordinator in Bangladesh.

The first wave of Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh in 1978, followed by another wave in 1991-1992. Today, despite Bangladesh government’s routine practice of involuntary repatriation to Myanmar, people continue to arrive in Bangladesh, escaping persecution at the hands of the Myanmarese junta. This has developed into a regional challenge as evident in recent headlines about Thai authorities pushing away boatloads of Rohingya men seeking refuge in Thailand back to the sea.

“I was born in Myanmar, but, that government says I do not belong there. I grew up in Bangladesh, but, this government says I can not stay here. As a Rohingya, I am caught between a crocodile and a snake,” a nineteen-year-old unrecognised Rohingya refugee told MSF.

Rohingyas must be guaranteed a healthy and dignified life and if, due to a well founded fear of persecution, they choose to leave their homeland then the government of Bangladesh, and other countries in the region, must offer them refuge and assistance in accordance with international standards of humanitarian assistance.♦

Naomi Pardington is Communications Advisor (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Moldova, Myanmar, Somalia) at Médecins Sans Frontières. For more information about MSF’s work in Bangladesh and Myanmar see http://www.msf.org

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