One of the world’s most densely populated countries, in the past year Bangladesh has accommodated over 700,000 Rohingyas fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar. Yet its government refuses to label the newcomers as refugees and expects them to return to Myanmar. Nicholas Nugent recently visited the largest of the Rohingya camps

Cox’s Bazar: This coastal city was founded in the 1790s to accommodate refugees from the kingdom of Arakan after it was invaded by lowland Burmese. Captain Hiram Cox of the English East India Company was sent to the fishing village, then known as Palonki, to support 50,000 refugees. He did what was asked of him but died before completing the task. In his honour, the village was renamed after him.

This 18th century incursion was the first of a series of incidents which brought the British into conflict with Burmese rulers. Recent events across the same border echothe earlier events, except this time there is both an ethnic and a religious element to the exodus of Muslim Rohingyas from Arakan, now Myanmar’s Rakhine state, named after its majority people. At least 700,000 of Rakhine state’s minority Rohingya community have fled across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border to Cox’s Bazar in the past year as the result of an alleged pogrom by Myanmar soldiers, which followed an attack by militant Rohingya on police posts.The Rohingya people were stateless in Myanmar – and are now stateless in Bangladesh.

United Nations officials have accused the Myanmar army of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and a deliberate attempt to evict Muslim Rohingya from their homeland. But the Myanmar government says the Rohingyas, who speak a language of their own akin to that spoken in the Chittagong district of Bangladesh, are ‘migrants from Bangladesh’ who do not belong in Myanmar, despite being born there. When pushed, the authorities addthat ‘they are not Buddhist’, like the majority of Myanmar’s citizens, and ‘they look like Bengalis’, the people of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has the problem of accommodating this new wave of arrivals alongside at least 400,000 earlier Rohingya migrants from Myanmar. Rohingya have also found their way to Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Bangladesh’s government is wary of designating the new arrivals ‘refugees’, fearing that to do so would give them asylum rights. Instead it calls the Rohingya ‘forciblydeported migrants’. Most of the new arrivals are housed in Kutupalong camp, the largest of several, which with 626,000 inhabitants has the dubious distinction of being the largest refugee camp in the world.Deputy District Commissioner Kamal Hussein told me that half the 2.2 million inhabitants of Cox’s Bazar district are Rohingya of Myanmar origin.

SCALE OF THE CRISIS: An aerial shot of Rohingya encampments in Bangladesh
SCALE OF THE CRISIS: An aerial shot of Rohingya encampments in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a populous country of about 165 million people so an extra three-quarters of a million does notmake much overall difference – especially when contrasted with Lebanon, a country of 6 millionwhich has given shelter to 1.5 million Syrian refugees over the past five years.Yet land in Bangladesh is in short supply, the more so when annual monsoon flooding reduces the area for living or cultivation by as much as a third.

One of Asia’s poorest countries, Bangladesh has pulled itself up considerably over the past decade with average annual economic growth above 6 per cent enabling it to overtake its more populous former partner nation, Pakistan –the former West Pakistan to Bangladesh’s ‘East’–in per capita GDP terms. It has also made significant advances in food self-sufficiency and reducedits child mortality rate to below that of India as a result of government sanitation projects.

The Rohingya people were stateless in Myanmar – and are now stateless in Bangladesh

But Bangladesh is reluctant to give a permanent home to such a large influx of people they regard as illegal migrants. Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed in principle a programme of repatriation, but it is unlikely to take place. The Myanmar army is reported to have taken over the land and homes previously occupied by Rohingya. Bangladesh also considered moving Rohingya to an offshore island. Officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) oppose theplan.

Most likely the new arrivals will remain in the newly created camps in confined and overcrowded conditions in the area between the city of Cox’s Bazar and the border with Myanmar at Teknaf. In these camps they are bound by government conditions which deny inhabitants the right to study beyond Grade 5 – primary school level – or to seek work outside the camps. Nor are Rohingyasallowed to marry outside the refugee community.

A Bangladesh government document leaked 18 months ago and referring to earlier Rohingya migrants demonstrated the extent of its fears, writing of a risk of ‘degradation of [the] law and order situation, spread [of] communicable diseases’. The document said ‘it has to be assured that [Rohingyas] cannot spread out and mix with the locals [and]… should be arrested or pushed back to camps if they try to go beyond the assigned boundary’. The risk of disease is exacerbated by the congested living conditions where washing and toilet facilities are communal. Refugee shelters have no running water or electricity supply.

Both the living conditions and the government’s rules perpetuate the level of poverty in the refugee camps. Early this year UNHCR said, of earlier migrants, ‘21 years after the Rohingya started arriving as refugees, they are more dependent on aid than ever… relying on regular distributions of food rations and relief items such as shelter and clothing. Basic water, sanitation and health services are provided by the government, UNHCR and its partners’. Teenagers in the camps complain of having little education and no prospect of getting work, unless they can find a way to break out of the camps.

Rice for the refugees has been, ironically, imported from Myanmar
Rice for the refugees has been, ironically, imported from Myanmar

A country that can in most years produce enough to feed its people has had to resort to importing rice and other foodstuffs to distribute to the refugee camps. I found a rice bag reused to make a pathway that showed that rice for the refugeeshad, ironically, been imported from Myanmar. Plenty of international help has been offered to support the Rohingya population,including around €100 million from the European Union.

According to Dr Himan of the French relief agency, Médecins Sans Frontières, there are 35,000 aid workers in the camps, most of them Bangladeshi, working with UNHCR and 176 voluntary agencies. Another UN agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), coordinates their activities.Besides providing basic food and shelter they provide primary education and healthcare. The scale of the operation is enormous. Dr Himan estimates that 50-60 babies are born in the camps every day. Bangladesh, I was told, is used to coping with natural emergences such as cyclones and flooding and is well equipped for such eventualities as the involuntary movement of large numbers of people.

Myanmar’s army is reported to have taken over the land and homes previously occupied by Rohingya

The camps are well run and organised, their inhabitants well cared for albeit at subsistence level. The current monsoon presents additional problems for such a densely populated community. Aid planners have identified 57,000 households of around 247,000 people at risk from landslides or flooding. The speed at which the Rohingya arrived and the camps were created means there is little space available. Camps were constructed around cultivated land and livestock share the same space.

Relations with ‘locals’ appear to be good. Indeed the influx of new customers has been welcomed in the community which otherwise earns its living from fishing. But nationally the Rohingyas are not popular. With the government facing elections at the end of the year, no let-up in its restrictive policy towards Rohingyas is expected and they have little to look forward to. ‘This is no life,’ said one camp-born man in his 20s, ‘and the worst things is there is no hope.’

Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Previously on the staff of the BBC World Service, he has written books on India and Vietnam and contributed to others on Indonesia and Myanmar. He is working on a history of the Spice trade

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