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VERY so often, the tragic human


situation of the Rohingyas pushes
itself to the forefront of interna-
tional consciousness. Lately it has
been as a result of the Burmese authorities
forcing hundreds of desperate men out to
sea in open boats and left to die.
When 220 of these former Burmese
refugees, known as Rohingyas, were dis-
covered and when Angelina Jolie,
Hollywood celebrity and UNHCR goodwill
ambassador, spoke about their plight, it
focused the spotlight on them again, if only
briefly.
Then, the story disappeared, but not the
reality of their impossible circumstances.
These persecuted and displaced
refugees come from Myanmar (Burma)
where they have lived for many genera-
tions, yet they are stateless and the govern-
ment refuses to recognise these Muslims as
citizens in the largely Buddhist country.
Instead, they make the lives of this
minority intolerable and by doing so hope
the estimated million or so remaining
Rohingyas will follow the other 250 000 who
have slipped over the border into the east-
ern part of Bangladesh. The Rohingyas
and the Bangladeshis of the Chittagong
region speak a similar language, are phys-
ically alike, and practice the same religion.
Over the past two decades they have fled in
successive waves looking for sanctuary.
Bangladesh, though, has enough of its
own problems. Beyond poor, and prone to
natural disasters, with more than 150 mil-
lion people crammed together on low-lying
land in a space smaller than England, it is
one of the most densely populated, not to
mention corrupt, countries on Earth with
few resources to feed and house its own
people, let alone the Rohingyas.
The border between the two countries,
while guarded, is possible to cross in cer-
tain places either by boat or by foot. At one
point I stood and spoke briefly to the
Burmese woman in her field where she
grew tomatoes, corn and chillies. The life
the Rohingyas seek in Bangladesh is
hardly paradise. In fact, it led several long-
term aid workers to comment that this was
the worst refugee crisis in the world.
The (Rohingya) refugees break down
into four categories the first are official
and registered 23 620 are housed, fed, and
looked after by UNHCR, which is in the
country at the invitation of the Bangladesh
government. Others, about 5 000, are the
self-settled, those miserable men and
women who have built shelters on the out-
skirts of Kutupalong, the UN camp, and
are possibly in the worst condition they
have nothing and are entitled to nothing.
The third type of which there could be
200 000 have melted into the host commu-
nity. Many, though, are lured back to the
UNHCR camp by the guarantee of regular
supplies. This is a major source of concern
for the government in a country where
food insecurity is standard and malnutri-
tion levels are prevalent.
The fourth kind are also unregistered,
but now have shelter, sanitation, health-
care and water provided by a British-based
charity called Islamic Relief (IR).
These 500 families lived in inhuman
conditions, in the open air, in a mangrove
bed, in makeshift shacks that were flooded
twice a day by the tidal Naaf river, the nat-
ural border between Myanmar and
Bangladesh, but prohibited from moving
any further inland by the government
worried that by recognising them, they
would also be responsible for them.
To help, IR asked for eight hectares to
build a site called Leda, to rehouse the
10 000 refugees. The government finally
agreed to donate 6ha of land (later
expanded to 8ha).
To ensure that the government didnt
change its mind, the forest had to be
cleared, drains dug, 360 latrines put in, and
1 940 palm leaf structures erected along
with drawing up plans for the healthcare
centre, all within three months before the
monsoon season. Since July the number in
Leda has swelled to 13 000, bringing new
worries about possible degradation.
While most Rohingyas consider them-
selves Burmese, they have no desire to
return to a place where they face brutal
discrimination. Men are often taken by the
army and used as forced labour where
many die. Once the men go, the women are
stranded. Land is routinely confiscated.
They are subjected to numerous impossi-
ble restrictions such as not being allowed
to leave the village without permission.
They cannot get married without state
authority, and that costs the brides side
and the grooms side 400 000 Myanmar kyat
(R653 000) a fortune. They are only per-
mitted to have one child. Women are sub-
jected to sexual violence. There are also no
schools for the Rohingyas.
The government of Myanmar tells the
Rohingyas they are Bangladeshi, the
Bangladeshis tell them they are Burmese.
For every solution, there is a problem,
and for some problems there are no clear
solutions. The Rohingyas have come in two
major waves, in 1978, and 1991 when 250 000
flooded across the border and 230 000 were
voluntarily repatriated. They returned
to find their diabolical situation had not
improved and re-crossed the border.
That still remains an option. The other
is resettlement in third countries. So far,
244 people have been sent to Canada, New
Zealand, Australia and Ireland. The third
is local integration giving the Rohingyas
citizenship of Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, the UN is making the case
for the Rohingyas to stay in Bangladesh
until the conditions in Myanmar are con-
ducive to their return.
The Bangladesh government is theoret-
ically opposed to the integration of the
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the
UN is advocating for their basic rights to be
met. The World Food Programme has been
providing support since the refugees first
arrived in 1992 and plans to spend
$9.6 million (R101 million) over the next
two years, providing food and livelihood
support to the refugees in the camps.
Something needs to be done, as many of
these people have lived in camps for 16
years. They are psychologically tired. Its a
tough life. Myanmar remains aloof, happy
to open the gates and let the Rohingyas out.
In Leda camp people talked to me about
the food shortage. In IRs remit they can
provide sanitation, housing, healthcare
but not food or education. The charity
wants them to be self-reliant, urging them
to work in the salt fields nearby, or as rick-
shaw wallahs. The host community has
issues. They are equally poor, but the
Rohingyas undercut them in their desper-
ation.
Kabizatul Kubra, a Bangladeshi woman
from the local community, says she has
sympathy with their plight. Were sad
they lost so much, they are also created by
Allah, like us, but we are a poor country
and they should go back.
Her concerns are that if food is not pro-
vided, they will turn to thieving.
She accused the women of being prosti-
tutes and the men of polluting the water
source, but conceded that since Leda camp
was established the host community has
benefited from the healthcare centre,
which they are also able to use. The com-
munities pray together and the foreigners
are largely tolerated.
Another woman complained to me that
locals beat them up when they gather fire-
wood. Outside her small living space were
her husband and son, their skinny bodies
prone and unconscious as a result of a
beating a few days earlier.
There are serious issues facing Leda,
despite the efforts made by IR. There is not
enough water, and there are growing con-
cerns on how hygiene and sanitation can
be dealt with in the site, because the land
available is already congested and the
water resources declining rapidly. IR is
damming the canals and when it rains,
using them as natural reservoirs.
But this will work only in a few months,
during the rainy season. There will be four
to five difficult months before that.
While migration levels have levelled off,
there has been a recent incident in Myan-
mar where communities have been vio-
lently attacked, so Bangladesh is anticipat-
ing the influx of about 1 000 refugees. After
a discussion with some of the women, one
handed me a letter in English citing the
legal demand (sic) of the refugees. No 1
We want democracy in Myanmar. No 2
We want nationality. No 3 We want com-
pensation.
Leda may be a well-managed camp,
clean, orderly, where there is a small mar-
ket, where runner beans grow on the roofs,
a team of five doctors are on call, a mental
health clinic and a therapeutic feeding cen-
tre but in the end it is a refugee camp.
Another woman I met there, a midwife,
said, we are just floating here suffering
in the interregnum between not being able
to start a new life and not being able to for-
get the old one.
The Star WEDNESDAY MARCH 11 2009
15
INSIDE
The persecuted
and displaced
Rohingyas come from
Myanmar where they
have lived for many
generations, but they
are stateless, writes
Heidi Kingstone
Left: A woman and her orphaned grandson
contemplate a bewildering new existence.
Above: Local people often attack refugees,
like this man who was severely beaten.
The forgotten refugees
The Myanmar refugees live in desperate conditions: their first camp was deluged by floods. PICTURES: HELEN MOULD (ISLAMIC RELIEF) AND HEIDI KINGSTONE