Rohingya struggle in Bangladesh refugee camps
July 17, 2013
Bangladesh capital Dhaka has cracked down on migration from neighbouring Myanmar, closing its border, refusing to support asylum seekers and turning back boats.
Surakatun and her family have been eating boiled leaves and rice for the past three days.
It's a normal lunch at the unofficial refugee camp in Kutupalong - once the pots are empty, that's it.
"My husband is old now so if I don't go out and beg we go hungry," she said.
Like everyone in the camp, Surakatun is a Rohingya who has fled violence in Myanmar - she would rather endure this harsh existence than go back there.
"If you see your daughter being dragged in front of you and being violated sexually would you bear that? Would you allow that to happen?" she said.
In June and October last year, violence broke out between Buddhists and the Muslim minority Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
According to the United Nations, the fighting displaced 140,000 people.
Myanmar President Thein Sein rejects that the violence in Rakhine state was fuelled by religion or ethnicity - he says his government is trying to help the communities there coexist in harmony.
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for 200 years, but Thein Sein's government does not recognise them as citizens.
They are regarded as Bangladeshi immigrants, but authorities in Dhaka do not recognise them either.
Jing Song, UNHCR Bangladesh spokeswoman, says Rohingya are denied the basic rights afforded to citizens.
"When you are living in the country, the rights are given by the country, by your government," she said.
"Where you are stateless it means you don't have access to the basic rights like the rights to employment, the rights to education, the rights to medical care - you have lots of restrictions."
Thirty thousand Rohingya get aid agency assistance in official refugee camps.
However, the government refuses to recognise the remaining 200,000 who fend for themselves in one of the many "unofficial" camps.
To discourage the Rohingya from coming, last year the Bangladeshi government banned aid agencies in the camp and started turning away boats
"We are repeatedly urging the government to open border to people who are coming to seek safe haven - we all know what is happening in the Rakhine state," Jing Song said.
"There could be economic reasons but also the fundamental reason is lack of access to basic rights so it is an international standard to open the border, not to push back people."
People inside the camp don't get any official support when it comes to food, health, or shelter and they desperately need it.
Houses are covered with garbage bags, so when the monsoon rains come they flood very easily.
There are only a handful of toilets to service a population of 50,000 people.
Despite the government crackdown, Rohingya keep coming - newly arrived refugees Zakir, and his 20-year-old daughter Yasmin live in the camp.
Before fleeing Myanmar four months ago, Yasmin was working as a language teacher for the UNHCR when violence broke out.
"The UNHCR people were being targeted and blacklisted and already many of them had been arrested," Zakir said.
"The authorities have gone to the homes of the UNHCR workers to look for them, so I was afraid my daughter would get arrested because she worked for UNHCR."
As one of the poorest nations on earth, Bangladesh can barely look after its existing population, let alone others from neighbouring countries.
Each day last year, 23,000 people were forced to flee their homes, twice as many compared with a decade ago.
Adil Kham, a human rights advocate, says legislation cannot stop the movement of people.
"Human history is the history of migration - people migrate and the laws can't stop that," he said.
Like Bangladesh, India has reason to be worried about a potential influx of asylum seekers - it's already home to one third of the world's poor.
To counter this, India is building a fence along the border and hopes to eventually have the entire 4,000 km frontier walled off.
People still find ways to get across, bribing border guards or sneaking across in the dark.
The fence has also created a new problem - over the past decade, killings have been widespread on the borderline.
"This is the bloodiest border I think in this world context," Adil Khan said.
"It is more bloody than Palestine-Israel border and I think it is more bloody than the Mexico-USA border, so it is the bloodiest border and we can call it the killing fields."
In the past, the Bangladesh government has criticised India for its decision to try to fence off the entire border.
Now, Bangladesh has decided to build a fence too, but this one will be along the border it shares with Myanmar.
"Fencing the people, it's like putting people in a kind of prison," Adil Khan said.
"This is not a solution, the solution is how you can have a more friendly relationship with the people."
Rohingya asylum seeker Zakir is now trying to bring his wife and the nine children he left behind in Myanmar to Bangladesh.
"I am afraid. I am really concerned, they are all young children," Zakir said.
"Our house is on the west side of the hills so they have to walk across those hills to come to Bangladesh, it takes at least four hours to cross."
He isn't sure if the Bangladesh government will have built its fence by the time he has enough money to get them across.
But in his eyes, no physical barrier changes the resolve of someone so desperate.
"No matter how difficult it is at the border, people will still cross because they are desperate," Zakir said.
"No matter how difficult the route is, they have to save their lives."
(Video Credit: ABC Australia)