Six months ago, 89-year-old Abdul Matin fled the sectarian riots in the state of Rakhine, in Myanmar, to a refugee camp in Bangladesh. His house was burnt down during the unrest, along with all his belongings. With nothing but cruel memories of a bleeding homeland, he and his family salvaged what they could and crossed over the River Naf.
“We had no choice but to sell the jewllery my wife was wearing at the time we escaped to pay to cross the river,” Matin told The Express Tribune.
Matin is one of the more than 20,000 Rohingyas who fled Myanmar and came to Bangladesh, a state that does not give them refugee status. Here, the ‘unregistered’ Rohingya refugees do not officially exist.
“In Islam, such migration is considered a ‘hijrat’ but in our case, the word Rohingya has become a derogatory term which the locals use to degrade us,” he said.
At present, Matin and his seven family members live under an eight-by-six feet tent in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Teknaf, on the Bangladeshi side of Naf. In his hometown, Matin owned a shop, now he sells coconuts. He said he had a little idea about what life in a refugee camp would be like but the reality is far graver.
“The daughter of the woman living in the next tent was gang-raped last week. Another family in a nearby tent is engaged in prostitution because they don’t have any male relatives who could earn for them,” said Matin, now scared for his own daughters’ future. “The worst thing is that we can’t even seek security from police as the authorities don’t recognise our existence here.”
Myanmar passed a law in 1982 that effectively rendered the Rohingya community stateless. Frequent waves of ethnic violence since 1991 – some of those state-sponsored – have pushed more than 250,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh, where they live in squalid, makeshift camps with little or no access to healthcare or education.
Since 1992, the Bangladeshi government has denied the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) permission to register the Rohingya refugees. They are still considered illegal migrants and are not entitled to the food relief provided by the World Food Program. They are also denied access to basic healthcare and education provided by the UNHCR and its partner organisations.
“People do not leave their homes and go to a foreign country just because they will get basic healthcare or education,” said Jing Song, the UNHCR spokesperson in Dhaka.
Unfortunately, the Bangladeshi government is determined to keep the aid to a bare minimum to avoid creating a ‘pull factor’ (conditions that will attract more refugees), an official of the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management said on condition of anonymity.
In late July 2012, the Bangladeshi government ordered three prominent international aid organisations – Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), and Muslim Aid – to cease assistance to Rohingya refugees living in unregistered camps in the Cox’s Bazaar district and around the Teknaf district.
However, denial of healthcare and education is not all that the Rohingyas have to deal with. Since July, Bangladesh police and border authorities have launched an unprecedented crackdown, pushing over 6,000 Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Some 500 were also arrested from different parts of the country.
Consequently, the state’s mistrust of the refugees has trickled down to the local population. Teknaf residents believe the refugees are behind the rising petty crime in the area around the unregistered camps.
“Ever since the government has snapped aid coming from international agencies – which were supporting the unregistered refugees in these camps – the crime rate has been on the rise,” said Bokhtiar Ahmed, councilor of the local government authority at Ukhiya Upozila (sub-district) Teknaf and a member of the Anti-Rohingya Settlement Campaign. “Although we don’t want them to be settled here, we do want them to be treated humanly until they are repatriated,” he said.
Out of desperation, many refugees have started begging or running prostitution rackets in and around the camps, he alleged. Ahmed added that many local influential people are also exploiting the poor Rohingyas for crimes as severe as smuggling and armed robberies.
Sub-Inspector Mahmud Ratan of the Teknaf police station agreed with this assessment, “We have been receiving frequent reports of crime, including theft, arms assault, begging, smuggling and even prostitution, involving the unregistered Rohingyas. It’s a nightmare-like situation for the law enforcing authorities. These crooks are not registered and therefore cannot be traced down without their basic information.”
For the refugees, then it is being stuck between a rock and a hard place. “The Bangladesh government says we are illegal migrants. But we didn’t enter Bangladesh secretly to work or to do crime. We have come to save our lives and our families,” said Ziaur Rahman, another refugee who lives in the Ukhiya Sub-District camp, some 12km north of Teknaf. “People are turning to crime out of desperation. What else would they do to feed their families?”
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2013.