Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Nowhere to Turn

Source from Irrawaddy news magazine Vol.18 No.1, Jan 2010
A woman in leda refugee camp, one of the offcial camps in Cox’s Bazar. (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

Many homeless Rohingya prefer hunger in a hostile land to life in Burma

I’ve lost everything in my life and now I can only pray that I don’t get sent back to Burma,” said Haziqah, a 27-year-old Rohingya resident of the unofficial Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Before joining the camp, Haziqah lived in the Bandarban Hill Tract, about 150 km [93 miles] to the north, where many Rohingya refugees from Burma have settled. She and her husband managed to survive on the meager wages he earned from odd jobs in the area and were starting to hope they could lead a normal existence.

Rohingya men gather round to listen to Haziqah tell her story. (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

But then, one morning seven days after giving birth to her first child, soldiers from the Bangladeshi border force, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), stormed their village. Rounding up all the Rohingyas living there, they marched them toward the Bangladesh-Burma border.

During the march, she said, the soldiers beat her husband severely and pushed her along, ignoring the week-old baby in her arms. When they reached the top of a hill bordering Burma, the soldiers simply gave them a shove to send them back to the country from which they had fled.

In the chaos, she was separated from her husband; she later received reports that he had been captured by the Nasaka, the Burmese border force operating in Arakan State. She and some other women hired a boat to take them back to Bangladesh. By the time she arrived there her baby had died.

People in Kutupalong camp collect water from wells provided by Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger). (Photo: ALEX ELLGEE)

Similar stories of BDR brutality are told by new arrivals at the makeshift Kutupalong camp. Like Haziqah, many of the women have been separated from their husbands and must struggle to find food and look after their children.

Since tensions peaked in August between Bangladesh and Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council over the Burmese regime’s construction of a border fence, arrests and forced repatriation of Rohingya refugees dramatically increased. More than 5,000 Rohingyas were sent back to Burma in October and November.

Since the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid ul Adha in Bangladesh at the end of November, a temporary halt appears to have been called to repatriations, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers employed in the camps.

It’s believed that a visit by a Dutch diplomat and three European humanitarian ambassadors may also have put pressure on the Bangladeshi authorities to stop sending Rohingyas back to Burma.
However, despite fears that the repatriations will start again, families continue to flee to the unofficial camp, even though it receives no food aid, unlike the official camp next door. Three hundred families reportedly arrived at the Kutupalong camp in November.

The Bangladeshi government refuses to accept Rohingyas who arrived in the country after 1991 as refugees and instead labels them illegal migrants, leaving them to fend for themselves. If they find work in the surrounding area, they risk arrest.

Zawpe, a Rohingya leader in Kutupalong camp, said fear of arrest prevented many migrants leaving the camp in search of work.

“Because of the travel restrictions, conditions in the camp are very bad,” he said. “People are too afraid to go outside to find food. The food crisis is alarming.

“The government doesn’t let NGOs give us food, we are not allowed to work for food and the local communities don’t want us to, so we are starving. It’s 1 p.m. and most of the camp hasn’t eaten yet. If the situation continues like this, then people will die.”

Zawpe said migrants also risk being hunted down by Bangladeshis, who then hand them over to the authorities.

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