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The Worst Refugee Situation in the World

The Worst Refugee Situation in the World? The Rohingyas

Every so often the tragic human situation of the Rohingyas pushes itself to the forefront of international consciousness. Lately it has been as a result of the Thai authorities forcing hundreds of desperate men out to sea in open boats and left to die. When 220 of these former Burmese refugees, known as Rohingyas, were discovered and then Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood celebrity and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, talked about their plight, it focused the spotlight on them again, if only briefly.

Then, the story disappeared, but not the reality of their impossible circumstances stuck literally between a rock and a hard place with no where to go. These persecuted and displaced refugees come from Myanmar (Burma) where they have lived for many generations, yet they are stateless, the government refuses to recognize these Muslims as citizens in the largely Buddhist country. Instead they make the lives of this minority intolerable and by doing so hope the estimated million or so remaining Rohingyas will follow the other 250,000 who have slipped over the border into the eastern part of Bangladesh. The Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis of the Chittigong region speak a similar language, are physically alike, and practice the same religion. Over the past two decades they have fled in successive waves looking for sanctuary.

Bangladesh, though, has enough of its own problems. Beyond desperately poor, prone to natural disasters -- floods, famine, plagues of rats, disease -- with over 150 million people crammed together on low-lying land in a space smaller than England, it is one of the most densely populated, not to mention corrupt, countries on earth with few resources to feed and house its own people let alone absorb the Rohingyas.

The border between the two countries, while guarded, is possible to cross in certain places either by boat or simply by foot. At one point I stood and talked briefly to the Burmese woman in her field where she grew tomatoes, corn and chillies a few metres away across a narrow stream of water. The life the Rohingyas seek in Bangladesh is hardly paradise. In fact it lead several long-term aid workers to comment that this was the worst refugee crisis in the world.

The (Rohingya) refugees break down into four categories -- the first are official and registered -- 23,620 are housed, fed, and looked after by UNHCR who is in the country at the invitation of the Bangladesh government. Others, about 5000 are the self-settled, those miserable men and women who have built shelters on the outskirts of Kutupalong, the UN camp and are possibly in the worst condition - they have nothing and are entitled to nothing. The third type of which there could be 200,000 have melted into the host community. Many, though, are lured back to the UNHCR camp by the guarantee of regular supplies. This is a major source of concern for the government in a country where food insecurity is standard and malnutrition levels are prevalent in 50-60 percent of the general population.

The fourth kind are also unregistered, but now have shelter, sanitation, healthcare and water provided by a British-based charity called Islamic Relief. These 500 families lived in inhuman conditions, in the open air, in a mangrove bed, in makeshift shacks that were flooded twice a day by the tidal Naaf river, the natural border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, but prohibited from moving any further inland by the government worried that by recognizing them they would also be responsible for them.

To help, Islamic Relief asked for 20 acres to build a site called Leda, in order to rehouse the 10,000 refugees. The government finally agreed to donate 15 acres of land (later expanded to 20). In order to ensure that the government didn't change its mind, the forest had to be cleared, the drains dug, 360 latrines put in, and 1940 palm leaf structures erected along with drawing up plans for the healthcare centre, all within three months before the monsoon season. Since July the number in Leda has swelled to 13,000, bringing new worries about possible degradation.

While most Rohingyas consider themselves Burmese, they have no desire to return to a place where they face brutally discrimination. Men are often taken by the army and used as forced labour where many die. Once the men go the women are stranded. Land is routinely confiscated. They are subjected to numerous impossible restrictions such as not being allowed to leave the village without permission, which also means not being able to sell goods at market. They cannot get married without state authority, and that costs the bride's side and the groom's side 400,000 Myanmar kyat -- a fortune. They are only permitted to have one child. Women are subjected to sexual violence. There are no schools for the Rohingyas so they remain at the bottom of the pile without any means of escape. The government of Myanmar tells the Rohingyas they are Bangladeshi, the Bangladeshis tell them they are Burmese.

For every solution, there is a problem, and for some problems there are no clear solutions. The Rohingyas have come in two major waves, in 1978, and 1991 when 250,000 flooded across the border and 230,000 were 'voluntarily' repatriated. They returned to find their diabolical situation had not improved and re-crossed the border.

That still remains an option, but not a very serious one. The other is resettlement in third countries. So far 244 people have been sent to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Ireland, but that strategy has its obvious limitations. The third is local integration -- giving the Rohingyas citizenship of Bangladesh.

"At the root of the problem it's a political issue," says Islamic Relief's Country Director, Dr Ahmed Nasr, which needs international support. "Some sort of pressure should be used, and Bangladesh also needs some incentives, maybe more aid."

Meanwhile the UN is making the case for the Rohingyas to stay in Bangladesh until the conditions in Myanmar are conducive to their return. The Bangladesh government is theoretically opposed to the integration of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh but the UN is advocating for their basic rights to be met -- current challenges include the right to education, right to work and freedom of movement. The World Food Program has been providing support since the refugees first arrived in 1992 and plans to spend US$9.6 million over the next two years, providing food and livelihood support to the refugees in the official camps.

Something needs to be done as many of these people have lived in camps for 16 years. They are psychologically tired. It's a tough life, and there are no easy answers but so far neither government is taking responsibility. Myanmar remains aloof, happy to open the gates and let the Rohingyas out.

In Leda camp people talked to me about the food shortage. In IR's remit they can provide sanitation, housing, healthcare but not food or education. The charity wants them to be self-reliant, urging them to work in the salt fields nearby, or as rickshaw wallahs. The host community has issues. They are equally poor, but the Rohingyas undercut them in their desperation.

Kabizatul Kubra, a Bangladeshi woman from the local community, says she has sympathy with their plight. "We're sad they lost so much, they are also created by Allah, like us, but we are a poor country and they should go back." Her concerns are that if food is not provided, they will turn to "thieving". She accused the women of being prostitutes and the men of polluting the water source but conceded that since Leda camp was established the host community has benefited from the healthcare centre, which they are also able to use. The communities pray together, and they are largely tolerated.

Another woman complained to me that locals beat them up when they go to gather firewood. Outside her small living space were her husband and son, their skinny bodies prone and unconscious as a result of a beating a few days earlier.

There are serious issues facing Leda, despite the efforts made by Islamic Relief which have been rated ++ by Francois Grunewald from Groupe URD (French acronym for Emergency Rehabilitation Development, a French not for profit Research and Evaluation Institute -- www.urd.org) who visited the camps during a mission for the European Humanitarian office DG ECHO. There is not enough water, and there are growing concerns on how hygiene and sanitation can be dealt with in the site as the land available is already congested and the water resources declining rapidly. IR is damming the canals and when it rains using it as a natural reservoir. But this will work only in a few months, during the rainy season. There will be four to five difficult months before that.

While migration levels have leveled off, there has been a recent incident in Myanmar where communities have been violently attacked, so Bangladesh is anticipating the influx of about 1,000 refugees.

After a discussion with some of the women, one handed me a letter in English citing the legal demand (sic) of the refugees. "No. 1: We want democracy in Myanmar. No. 2: We want nationality. No. 3: We want compensation."

Leda may be a well-managed camp, clean, orderly, where there is a small market, where runner beans grow on the roofs, a team of five doctors are on call, a mental health clinic, and a therapeutic feeding centre, but in the end it is a refugee camp. Another woman I met there, a mid-wife, said as we walked around the camp followed by dozens of children, "We are just floating here," suffering in the interregnum between not being able to start a new life and not being able to forget the old one.