At least 90,000 people have now been displaced by the conflict in Western Burma.
Photographer captures plight of Burmese Rohingya (Credit: ABC)
And with the monsoon season getting underway, a refugee crisis is looming, with the World Food Program saying it's provided food to more than 65,000 people and estimating a further 25,000 are in need of help.
Those refugees are mostly Muslim Rohingyas who flee to neighbouring Bangladesh - which already has a population of stateless Rohingya refugees.
Bangkok-based photographer Greg Constantine has been photographing those refugees for a number of years and he's releasing a book of those photographs in a collection called "Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya".
Presenter: Wayne Shields
Speaker: Greg Constantine, photographer
CONSTANTINE: I've been photographing the Rohingya in Bangladesh since 2006, so the photographs in the book, "Exiled to Nowhere", were taken over the course of eight different trips to southern Bangladesh from 2006 until the very beginning of this year. The last trip that I made was in February 2012.
SHIELDS: Ok Greg so maybe a little bit of background prior to this current conflict in western Burma, which has led to a lot of Rohingya moving to Bangladesh. But the people that you were taking these photos of, how did they mainly end up there?
CONSTANTINE: Over the past 40 years there's been really a history and a legacy of persecution of the Rohingya minority group, particularly in north Rakhine state, which is a series of townships in Rakhine where the recent violence has been taking place. And over the past 40 years there's been several different waves of persecution of the Rohingya in Burma, and that has openly ended up forcing a lot of people outside of their home country and fleeing to Bangladesh. And over the course of the years the last big wave was 1991-92, and since then several hundred if not thousands of Rohingya trickle over the Burmese-Bangladesh border every single year, pretty much seeking sanctuary from the various forms of abuse that they face at the hands of the Burmese government.
SHIELDS: So how many Rohingya do you think are now in Bangladesh?
CONSTANTINE: I don't think anybody particularly knows all the strict figure of how many people live there. But the estimates range anywhere from 200 to 300-thousand people from this particular group Rohingya live in southern Bangladesh, pretty much clandestinely, there is probably 29 to 30-thousand officially recognised Rohingya refugees who live in two UNHCR monitored and administered refugee camps. But the other 200, 250-thousand are people who are not recognised by the Bangladesh government as being refugees, and they basically eke away a hand-to-mouth existence in southern Bangladesh.
SHIELDS: Late last year the new government of Burma agreed to take back registered Rohingya refugees, and since then as we've mentioned the mood has changed and more Rohingya want to leave Burma. You've been there on the ground, what do these people go through when they decide to set off for Bangladesh?
CONSTANTINE: Well one thing to make clear is that the area where most of the Rohingya live in Burma, in north Rakhine, is completely closed off to pretty much everyone, for the exception of some larger international organisations. North Rakhine is completely isolated and closed off to the press, to the media, to tourists, I mean it really is a locked down area of Burma. And so getting into north Rakhine and being able to photograph and tell the story of the Rohingya there is pretty much impossible. So my method has been to try to spend as much time in southern Bangladesh over the years to get the stories of people who have been coming out of Burma. And the problems that Rohingya face in Burma are numerous from forced labour to arbitrary land seizure to extortion and heavy taxes to even heavy restrictions on the right to get married, is probably one of the most extreme cases in the sense that Rohingya who want to get married in north Rakhine actually have to obtain formal permission from the local authorities, which is called an Nasaka. And a lot of these administrative kind of procedures that the Burmese government has put in place over the past 20 years or so really make life for the Rohingya miserable. And miserable enough to make the hard decision, do I stay here in Burma or for me to move forward with my life whether it be to be able to provide food for my family, because Rohingya cannot travel freely even from one village to the next in north Rakhine? Do I go to Bangladesh and live as an unrecognised person there and try to provide for my family there?
SHIELDS: Ok so you've mentioned it's a fairly miserable existence in Burma. How would you describe the condition of the people you found in Bangladesh?
CONSTANTINE: Well in my first trip in 2006 when I saw the conditions in which the Rohingya were living in the first question that came to my head, and I'm sure it's the first question that comes at least when I talk with other journalists who've spent time in southern Bangladesh, the first question that came to their mind was when you look at the conditions that they're living in in Bangladesh you wonder this is really, really horrible, how much worse could it actually be in Burma for them to make the conscious decision to actually leave and place themselves in this desperate situation in Bangladesh? So if that's any indication, the situation on both sides of the border really is quite desperate.
SHIELDS: Of the people that manage to find work, what type of work are they generally doing?
CONSTANTINE: Well they do manual labour jobs, and I think kind of the precarious part of all this is that the Rohingya, there are so many Rohingya in southern Bangladesh that they really have become an essential source of labour for a number of different businesses in economic sectors in southern Bangladesh, anywhere from 70 to 80 per cent of rickshaw drivers in a lot of towns in southern Bangladesh, in the Teknaf Cox's Bazar area are all Rohingya. The salt fields, the back-breaking work in many of the salt fields in southern Bangladesh are done by Rohingya. The fishing industry is basically incredibly reliant on the manual labour of Rohingya. You can look at pretty much any sector of the Bangladesh economy in southern Bangladesh, particularly in the Teknaf and Cox's Bazar area, and local Bangladeshi business owners are saving a lot of money by hiring Rohingya for rock bottom prices.
SHIELDS: Given that your focus was very much documenting how difficult life is for these people. How were you greeted or accepted by the Rohingya that you've taken photos of for your book?
CONSTANTINE: Well I think most of my trips are quite long and I've built relationships over the past six years with a number of different Rohingya in the community. I think that for myself there's always an element they have absolutely no reason to trust who I am as a foreigner or trust anyone for that matter, because I think that a lot of people from western governments to bodies in the UN have really failed this particular community. So they have every reason not to trust me. But I think that I spend a lot of time talking with people before I start taking pictures, and I think in general that a lot of the Rohingya that I talk to, they want their stories to be heard because they have so little voice in the international community. There's not a very substantial Rohingya exiles kind of organised exiled community out there right now, it's growing. But I think that the Rohingya want people to know their story and I just happen to be one of the people helping to share that story with other people out there.
SHIELDS: Greg there doesn't appear to be any joy in the photographs that I've looked at, no pictures of children smiling or laughing, that's obviously a conscious decision that you've made. But there must have been some joy?
CONSTANTINE: Well yeah, I mean I think the fact is that kids are kids, and I think that children in a lot of ways, specifically little children, they don't particularly understand the gravity of the situation in which they're existing in. So there's always moments that you're going to find a kid flying a kite, or find kids just being kids. But the reality of it is that there is an equal amount of situations in which I've met children who are Rohingya who didn't have smiles on their faces. And I think that when you see kids who don't have smiles on their faces and aren't being kids, then you really realise how serious the situation is, because the weight of a community's situation and desperation has now been kind of transferred over on to the shoulders of the child, and that to me is a pretty dramatic thing. I think it's a really good indicator of how desperate a situation is, and hence the reason why the particular photographs that I've chosen appear in my book.
SHIELDS: They say that every picture tells a story, is there a particular personal story that touched you that you could share with us?
CONSTANTINE: Well I think there's a number of stories that have left an impact on me over the years. I wouldn't particularly want to share one in particular, but I think that one of the big things for me has been talking to youth, people anywhere from the age of 25 to 18 who are Rohingya, and I think that as of right now or over the recent years, one of the probably the primary reason why Rohingya youth end up fleeing from Burma into Bangladesh is not so much because of violence, and not so much because of forced labour, but it's really because I would hear these stories over and over and over and over again, is the restrictions on marriage, and basically how young Rohingya who want to lead a normal life, get married, start families, are prevented from doing so because of this web of administrative restrictions that are put specifically on the Rohingya community, which makes them end up really realising if I want to move forward with my life, there's no way that I can do it here in my homeland, because the Burmese government is now allowing me to do things that normal human beings are able to do, which is get married and start a family. And because of that, they end up, that's the primary reason why people, why youth I think end up leaving north Rakhine and going to Bangladesh to seek sanctuary. Those are the kinds of stories I think that have really left a profound imprint on my mind, many of them are quite personal, but these are the kind of stories that people would share with me. And that I'm trying to share with people in this book through the voices of the Rohingya that are in this book as well.
SHIELDS: Alright Greg you're launching it this week, if people want to know more give us some website and social media details so they can have a closer look?
CONSTANTINE: Yeah a website was just launched of the project, it's www.exiledtonowhere.com. People can get a lot of information about the Rohingya, about the book on the website. There's links on there as well about how to purchase the book. My Rohingya work is only a chapter of a larger project that I've been working on for six years called Nowhere People, which basically documents the consequences that the denial of citizenship and statelessness have on ethnic minority groups all around the world. And the Rohingya is probably one of the more extreme examples of the consequences that statelessness has on a community. So people can also visit, www.nowherepeople.org to also find out not only more about the Rohingya, but about the global phenomenon of statelessness, which it really is becoming a global crisis in the sense that over 12-million people, according to the UN worldwide are without a nationality or denied citizenship and really belong to no country in the world.