COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh - Mahamuda Khatur remembers the fateful day three years ago. At dawn her husband had left their Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh for the forest to fetch firewood he would sell to other refugees or local people. He never returned.
Mahamuda was told that he had drowned in a river, a claim she has never independently verified. That left her as a 27-year-old widow with two children. Now, suffering from tuberculosis for eight months, Mahamuda is too weak to work and cannot feed herself or her children.
The pallor of her face and the thinness of her arms show the
unmistakable signs of severe malnutrition. Now, she has to rely on other refugees' generosity to survive. "But there is not much that the people here can do for us," she says. "Everybody is in the same situation."
Mahamuda is an ethnic Rohingya, a Sunni Muslim community that has fled persecution in its native Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh and other countries. Throughout this region, on a narrow strip of beach, sparse forest or sandy land squeezed between the Bay of Bengal and the Myanmar border, Rohingya exiles can be seen carrying heavy bags of salt, bundles of firewood, stacks of bricks, baskets of fish, blocks of ice.
Above all, they carry the weight of being one of the largest stateless populations on the planet. Out of an estimated 1.5 to 2 million population, only the 48,800 Rohingya registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh and Malaysia have legal status. The one million or so Rohingya living in Myanmar's western Arakan State are not recognized as citizens and the 500,000 to one million others who have chosen exile in other countries are mostly considered illegal migrants.
The Rohingya were not always a pariah in Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Although they have been a constant victim of a chauvinist Buddhist regime animated by anti-Muslim and anti-Indian sentiment dating back to the British colonial occupation, the Rohingya had citizen status in Myanmar until 1982. That year, then dictator Ne Win promulgated a citizenship law that stripped them of their nationality. It was the epilogue of one of the darkest chapters in the country's recent history, the Naga Min Operation ("Operation Dragon King") launched in 1978 in the west Arakan State.
In the name of a crackdown on "illegal migrants", the army killed, raped and arrested scores of people, mostly Rohingya. Villages were burned and looted. Mosques and other religious sites were particularly targeted. That operation forced some 200,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Most of them were repatriated by the end of 1979. In 1991-1992, fleeing the junta's widespread use of forced labor, summary executions, torture and rape, another wave of 250,000 Rohingya left the country. Currently the regime continues repressive practices, although on a lesser scale.
During a discrete visit in a large Rohingya village in Arakan State last year, in the relative safety of an old mosque, an elder detailed the numerous restrictions imposed by Myanmar authorities on the local population. "Even though we have been living here for many generations, we need a special authorization for almost everything: to move out of our area, send our children to the university, marry them, run a business. And, as everyone else in the state, we are constantly submitted to forced labor, arbitrary arrest, land confiscation and other abuses by the authorities."
Rohingya also complain of being targeted by the Rakhine, the predominant Buddhist group in Myanmar's Arakan State. It's a bitter irony considering that the Rakhine themselves are subject to the junta's systematic oppression against ethnic minorities. Violent incidents such as attacks on mosques by Buddhist radicals and retaliation by Rohingya are regularly reported. To justify their stance, both communities have traded endless arguments often founded on biased or reconstructed historical facts.
Xenophobia, fueled by extremists from both sides but also by the ruling junta, which has masterfully used divide and rule tactics to maintain its control, has submerged any hope of a dispassionate debate. Still, arguments forwarded by the Rakhine community, such as the "fear that the Rohingya occupy our land because of their high birth rate and rapidly increasing population", as a Rakhine journalist exiled in Bangladesh put it, have some basis and will eventually need to be properly addressed.
The dramatic situation of Rohingya exiles in Bangladesh, a country more accessible than Myanmar to outside observers, has become the show case for the minority's stateless plight. Some 29,000 Rohingya live as refugees in Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, south of Cox's Bazar, a booming beach resort in Bangladesh. These camps are under the UNHCR's supervision and benefit from the presence of a few international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). With properly built houses, schools, playgrounds and a sewage system, they look like any other adequately administered refugee camps in the world.
But the largest facility, Kutupalong, has a twin brother with a much less amiable face. "Kutupalong makeshift", as it's commonly known, is literally stuck to "Kutupalong registered". Thousands of adobe huts covered with plastic sheets, branches and dried leaves cluster together over a succession of bare hills, sheltering a population of 20,000, according to the latest count by a NGO active in the area.
Here, there is not a single trace of shade. Nor are there latrines or a proper sewage system. Only a few pumps installed by the French NGO Solidarites International provide for basic water needs. In the summer season, the heat inside the huts is sweltering. During the monsoon season, water often dissolves the huts' walls and transforms steep alleys into muddy torrents. In any season, day and night, disease-carrying insects are ubiquitous.
"We don't have enough mosquito nets," laments Karim, the community leader of one of the six blocks dividing the camp. "Many diseases are endemic here, malaria, diarrhea and tuberculosis. And now we have to face an epidemic of chicken pox and measles."
Almost like an indecent exhibit, mothers show the faces of theirinfants and children marked with chicken pox pustules. More worrisome is the 30% rate of acute malnutrition reported in the camp by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO). Only the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Holland, in a clinic set out of the camp along the main road, and the French Action Contre la Faim (ACF), has the right to provide medical treatment to the "Kutupalong makeshift" population.
A few kilometers to the south, Leda, the other non-official camp with a population of 13,700, offers a relatively less desperate face. Rattan-built houses are properly aligned along paved alleys, here and there emblazoned with flowers and greenery. Yet restrictions imposed by Bangladesh authorities in the makeshift camps are drastic. Food distribution and education are sharply curtailed. Still, if these rules were strictly enforced then "Kutupalong makeshift" and Leda would have turned into full-blown death camps.
Despite the appalling conditions, refugees manage to bypass these interdictions and organize their survival. In Kutupalong, for instance, as a substitute to a proper schooling establishment, community leaders with the help of outside sympathizers have set up a network of 30 classes inside huts with locally trained teachers.
The restriction on wandering outside the makeshift camps is perhaps the least observed of the restraints. "Many refugees leave them for a few days or a week to work in brick or dried fish factories, salt pans, as rickshaw drivers," says Karim, the Kutupalong community leader. "They usually work for 100 taka a day [about US$1.4], which is not enough to feed a family so often both parents have to work."
Page 2 of 2 Without a homeland, without a hope
By Tony Cliff
This population of illegal workers is particularly vulnerable to abuse and is constantly at the local authorities' and people's mercy. Rapes, beatings, thefts and other abuses against Rohingya have been well-documented over the years. There are an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 other Rohingya who live outside of the camps and are scattered all over the country who are equally at risk without legal status.
There is an ethnic irony to their situation. The Rohingya have similar origins with the predominant Bengali from southeast Bangladesh and share the same language spoken in Chittagong, the country's largest seaport, and its surrounding areas. They mix easily within a dense and already impoverished local population but are likewise seen as taking jobs and encroaching on scarce land.
"A deep tension between the two communities has developed over time, particularly the last two or three years," comments Chris Lewa, coordinator of The Arakan Project, a human-rights group monitoring the Rohingya's situation. In Ukhia, a small town near Kutupalong, local people have created "anti-Rohingya committees". "They organize meetings, publish documents denouncing how the Rohingya take over their work and ask for their deportation," says a journalist from Kaladan, a Rohingya news agency based in Chittagong.
Abuses by the local authorities had become so egregious that in February 2010 MSF stirred up a hornet's nest by strongly denouncing "a violent crackdown against stateless Rohingya in Bangladesh forcing thousands of people to flee in fear" to refugee camps. The campaign had an at least temporary positive impact on the Rohingya, seen in fewer cases of arrest and harassment from the police.
However, MSF's outburst, which some critics said "only developed an unconstructive approach towards the Bangladesh government" later triggered a strong reaction from the authorities. Work permits for NGOs active in the camps were suspended, putting them in the uneasy position of having to work on a day-to-day basis under the constant threat of expulsion. "It appears to be a government strategy to silence the NGOs," said Lewa.
The presence in both Myanmar and Bangladesh of a large population of young destitute Rohingya men regularly raises the concern of their potential exploitation by Islamic extremist groups. Although a few cases of recruitment by Islamic terrorist movements in Bangladesh were reported in the 1990s, there is no evidence today showing any link with this kind of organization, say aid workers.
In Myanmar, the omnipresence of the junta's vast surveillance apparatus acts to dissuade any recruitment efforts by outsiders. "These accusations result more from a fantasy," says a MSF staffer in Yangon who used to work in the Arakan State. "The Rohingya are surely orthodox Islamic, conservative people but it does not mean that they are terrorists." In Bangladesh, meanwhile, a massive crackdown launched by the authorities in 2005 has practically decimated local Islamic terrorist outfits.
Instead, thousands of Rohingya exiles are opting to leave Bangladesh for other supposedly more accommodating countries. Many attempt the dangerous and costly trip by boat across the IndianOcean to more prosperous destinations in Southeast Asia. About 25,000 Rohingya now live in Malaysia, including 19,800 who are under the UNHCR's care. Over the past two years, another 420 or so have reached Indonesia.
In Thailand, authorities have been embroiled in controversy about their treatment of Rohingya boat-people. In 2009, the Thai army was accused of pushing back to sea about 1,000 Rohingya boat-people without a working engine and with little food or water. According to human-rights organizations, more than half of them drowned. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva last month reaffirmed to a meeting of foreign journalists his government's policy to deport Rohingya, who he considers "economic migrants" rather than political refugees.
Among themselves, Rohingya often denounce the lack of solidarity from other Muslim communities. "There is no religious consideration, no Muslim brotherhood," laments a leader of the exile group Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO). A large community of Rohingya has settled in Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country.
The Saudi Embassy in Yangon claims that there are 120,000 there, though many of them arrived in the country with Bangladeshi passports. Another estimated 300,000 Rohingya have lived for years in Pakistan, mostly in the Karachi area where they are reportedly well integrated into the local community.
Repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar, meanwhile, has been on hold for several years because the political situation there offers few guarantees for a safe return. According to Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR's spokesperson in Asia, "Between 1992 and the end of 2005, when the last repatriation took place, 236,599 Rohingya refugees went back to Myanmar from Bangladesh."
She adds: "There are indications that as many as half of the 200,000 to 400,000 undocumented Rohingya that the Bangladesh government says are in the country now may have been registered as refugees in 1991, gone home to Myanmar, and come back to Bangladesh again." That, McKinsey says, means many have thus lost their previous refugee status.
Resettlement in third countries remains an exceptional outcome despite a program initiated in the refugee camps in 2006. According to a spokesman of the International Office for Migration (IOM), the program's implementing agency, "926 Rohingya have been resettled mostly in United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Another 500 people are expected to be resettled this year but we have to wait for the conclusions of a program review currently done by the Bangladesh government."
Any mass repatriation of Rohingya will remain wishful thinking as long as a comprehensive political settlement that purposefully addresses the fate of Myanmar's numerous ethnic minorities remains elusive. The newly appointed cabinet in Naypyidaw has so far demonstrated no sign of interest in reaching such an accommodation. Myanmar's Rohingya will thus be condemned to survive many more years in a stateless existence.
Tony Cliff, a pseudonym, is a Bangkok-based freelance photojournalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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