By JOSEPH ALLCHIN
Published: 9 June 2011
Rohingya children eat in a refugee camp in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar (Reuters)
Bangladesh’s food minister, Abdur Razzaque, has accused Western nations of fuelling the problem of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the country’s east that over several decades have sought refuge from the Burmese regime.
Speaking to US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Eric P. Schwartz, in Dhaka recently, Razzaque said that external pressure on the Bangladeshi government to register the refugees was “keeping the problem alive.”
A State Department press release before Schwartz’s trip noted that, “The United States is deeply concerned about the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the region, and is working with the governments of these countries to reach a comprehensive solution to the Rohingya’s plight.”
Bangladesh has consistently blocked attempts to provide more assistance and registration of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, to prevent what Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project calls a “pull factor” to the country. Dhaka has to date allowed only around 28,000 Rohingya to register and receive official aid in the country.
Bangladesh is officially a less-developed country, with huge social and economic problems of its own. Critics have claimed that the fact that Rohingya flee there is a testimony to the persecution and conditions in their native northern Arakan state in Burma.
The problem of refugees in the region has not diminished. Refugees International describe the push factors as “violent Burmese military campaigns (that) have been waged against the Rohingya”, whilst poverty and the everyday discrimination that denies the Rohingya even the basic citizenship rights granted to all citizens of Burma have persisted.
As a result, Rohingya have lived in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh for some 20 years, in what one aid worker, who wished to remain anonymous, called a “protracted emergency.”
“This is not possible for a poor country like Bangladesh to take care of huge Rohingya refugees for a long time,” Razzaque told reporters on Wednesday after meeting with Schwartz. “They [Western nations] are asking Bangladesh to increase support to the Rohingyas, keeping the problem alive.”
Physicians for Human Rights estimate that the acute malnutrition rate for children in Kutapalong, one of the main unofficial Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, is 18.2 percent. This is defined by being 60 percent or less of the median average weight for the age group, which the World Health Organisation suggests will result in a 30 to 50 percent mortality rate amongst the inflicted.
Razzaque further noted that Bangladesh’s child malnutrition rate (not to be confused with acute malnutrition) is around 25 to 30 percent, which UNICEF define as having a “diet [that] does not provide adequate calories and protein for growth and maintenance or they are unable to fully utilize the food they eat due to illness”.
Burma’s child malnutrition rate is believed to be approximately 30 percent, but marginalised areas such as northern Arakan state and eastern Karen state are believed to posses much worse figures.
“They [Rohingya] are tainting Bangladesh’s image abroad. The poverty level in Cox’s Bazar and its adjoining areas has come down further due to their push-in,” Razzaque added.
The impasse over what to do about the Rohingya shows no sign of being solved, with Bangladesh bidding for their return to Burma, and third parties, not confined to the ‘West’, calling for greater aid. Typically, Burma is still vehemently denying that they originate in Burma.
Bangladesh plays host to more Rohingya refugees than any other nation, but accusations of persecution and poor conditions persist: Rohingya are not allowed to work, and those living in camps are allegedly targeted by police and members of the public, leading Physicians for Human Rights to describe unofficial camps as “open air prisons”.