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No respite for Rohingya in Bangladesh

Refugees forced to flee Myanmar are living in camps without adequate access to food or health services.

Numbers of Rohingya refugees have swelled as violence in neighboring Arakan state increased (Photo: Al Jazeera)
By Jack Goodman
January 16, 2014

Rohingya refugee Shajida Begum, 18, has lived in northern Britain for four years, and 2014 will be the year she finishes high school and hopefully begins a university degree in accountancy. 

It is a very different life from the one she left in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, where she was born and spent her first 14 years. Shajida is grateful for her new existence in the UK, but is constantly reminded of those she left behind.

"We still miss the people who live in the refugee camps. We are happy, we have rights, we have got everything, but people who are still back home have got absolutely nothing," she told Al Jazeera.

"I was worried about leaving them because I can imagine how difficult it is to stay there. There is no electricity, no facilities, no health and safety."

About 30,000 Rohingya refugees officially live in Bangladeshi camps today. Unofficially, there are more are 200,000 unregistered Rohingya there. The registered are provided with aid and support by The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Bangladesh government. Unregistered refugees receive nothing.

Bangkok-based UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan described what she has witnessed as a "dire situation".

The number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has increased since violence in neighbouring Arakan state in Myanmar erupted between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in June 2012, which caused some of the 140,000 internally displaced to attempt to flee across the border.

Tayub Uddin is the vice president of the newly formed Democracy and Human Rights Party. He described in an email from his base in Yangon, capital of Myanmar, the current situation for Rohingya in that country. 

"There is completely no law and order in Arakan state for us. We are no more than animals in our motherland," he told Al Jazeera.

Since 2010, rapid democratic reforms in Myanmar have reopened diplomatic channels and an international spotlight has been shone on the plight of the Rohingya, but little is known about refugees living in Bangladesh. Even less is known about what the future might hold for tens-of-thousands of unregistered refugees.

Cramped conditions

Nijam Mohammed, 29, is a human rights activist and Rohingya refugee who, like Shajida, also lives in Bradford in northern Britain. About 350 Rohingya refugees have settled in the UK, 300 of them in Bradford. 

Nijam visited Bangladesh's Kutupalong camp in October 2013. Extended families live in a room four metres by three metres, and movement is often restricted within the camp. However, Nijam acknowledged a "good" education system for registered refugees since 2004 there, despite it only reaching primary levels, as well as the provision of basic healthcare assistance from UNHCR.

This is in stark contrast to some of the estimated 70,000 out of 200,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees that he witnessed living outside Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh.

"They live under open sky, with no support from the United Nations or the Bangladeshi government," Nijam said. "People are dying every day, there is a lack of food, treatment and education. You can't imagine how life is."

This is the case for the large majority of refugees in Bangladesh, aid groups say. The Bangladeshi government banned aid agencies - including Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Contre le Faim and Muslim Aid - from operating in the refugee camps in August 2012. 

A Bangladeshi official told Al Jazeera the charities were "encouraging an influx of Rohingya refugees". Restrictions remain today, but MSF currently runs a clinic that serves both Bangladeshi and Rohingya patients.

"According to international law, if you are forced to leave your country because of political or religious persecution, you have a right for refugee status," said Nijam.

"My question is why are these people not getting refugee status in Bangladesh? Why are the Western countries silent? Are they not interested because there is no oil or gas in Arakan state [in Myanmar]?"

New strategy

The mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar after the 2012 riots in Arakan state was the most recent episode of decades of persecution and forced evacuation. 

In 1991-92, more than 250,000 fled across the border into Bangladesh after an alleged escalation of killings, torture, rape and forced labour at the hands of the Myanmar's notorious military. A similar mass departure also occurred in 1977.

Much of the modern-day ethnic division and persecution was created and entrenched by the 1982 Citizenship Act, which effectively withdrew citizenship from the Rohingya. 

The Citizenship Act accorded Rohingya only "temporary registration cards" because they were not a recognised "national race". The majority of Rohingya did not then - and still don't have today - the required identification documents to gain full citizenship status. 

Even those with proper identification have often had it forcibly removed. As a consequence Rohingya are popularly perceived to be illegal Bengali immigrants, despite the fact they have settled in Myanmar - formerly Burma - for centuries.

The 2012 riots are believed to have begun after the alleged rape and killing of a Buddhist Rakhine woman by three Rohingya males, who were then sentenced to death. A government report stated the 2012 violence resulted in nearly 200 deaths, and Rohingya areas were razed to the ground by angry Buddhists.

Human Rights Watch has described the events in Myanmar as ethnic cleansing, and the United Nations has called for its government to provide Rohingya citizenship in the country.

According to the UNHCR, Bangladeshi authorities may propose a new system to provide humanitarian assistance that will include the unregistered refugees currently stranded in Bangladesh.

But UNHCR's Tan when asked about the issue said she was unsure whether this would happen this year. "Unfortunately, there is no clarity on when exactly the government strategy will be unveiled." 

She said, however, more pressure on the government of Myanmar was urgently needed to help resolve the refugee issue.

"A crucial element in resolving the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh lies in improving conditions in Rakhine state," Tan said.

"The Myanmar government needs to step up efforts to promote reconciliation after the inter-communal violence of 2012. More must be done to encourage peaceful co-existence between the communities, and ensure that everyone can enjoy their basic rights."

'Didn't have a chance'

Today, a generation of refugees born in camps in Bangladesh enjoy a life they'd never thought possible.

Salah Uddin, 17, who speaks with an endearing Yorkshire inflection that has distilled his accented English, is a cricketing all-rounder and business student.

"I always prayed to God to bring happiness in our life. Suddenly it's happened and we are in the UK," Salah told Al Jazeera. "But it doesn't make me delighted. In Bangladesh, lots of people couldn't leave. In Bangladesh, I didn't have a chance."

The future of the refugees in Bangladesh remains uncertain, with the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments unwilling to provide any sort of long-term protection for those stranded and by law, effectively stateless citizens.

In this small corner of northern Britain, the fight for the Rohingya continues. The activist Nijam recently returned from a conference held by the European Rohingya Council in Stockholm, Sweden.

"We do not fight for our independence, we only fight for our rights," Nijam said.

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