Rohingya Muslim refugees are clinging to the wreckage in Bangladesh

by Sally Blundell / 19 October, 2017
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Hundreds of thousands shelter in camps near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo/Getty Images

Half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar and are struggling with disease and hunger in a makeshift camp on the coast of Bangladesh. 

The children draw pictures of guns, of burning houses, of people lying on the ground leaking red. They are the youngest of the estimated 560,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled across mountain passes and along congested roads from Myanmar to Bangladesh over the past two months. In their short lives they have seen family members raped or killed, homes burnt and farms destroyed. They have witnessed executions, in what the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Huddling in a huge camp in the Cox’s Bazar region of southern Bangladesh, the refugees live in a situation of the utmost precariousness. Food and water are in short supply, sanitation almost non-existent. Makeshift shelters of bamboo and tarpaulins, built across elephant walkways, have been trampled. Monsoon rain is turning the border town into a swamp.

It’s like a massive rural slum crammed on a narrow peninsula, writes Kate White, an emergency medical co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières working in Bangladesh, “and one of the worst slums imaginable”.

Kate White: “It’s a horrific situation.”

There are few toilets. Just 10m from where human waste goes into the stream, people collect drinking water, children swim and women wash rice. “It’s a horrific situation. I can only imagine how incredibly terrible it must have been in their home village, if this is what they chose. If this is the better option, the other must have been a living hell.”

White is one of a team of about 1000 MSF staff treating diarrhoeal diseases, respiratory infections, skin diseases and infected wounds and trying to contain the very high risk of an infectious disease outbreak. The symptoms of other damage are less obvious. Some of the refugees have experienced violence so extreme that they cannot put it into words, she says. “They’re so traumatised that they can’t communicate with the outside world.”

MSF staff were struggling a year ago to cope with the estimated 300,000 who had fled, but the recent influx is pushing inpatient services beyond capacity. “Now, we routinely have about 115 patients in a 70-bed facility,” says White.

Ancient grudges

The causes of the nightmare are complex. Some trace the hostilities between Buddhists and the minority Muslim Rohingya back to pre-colonial times. Others point to World War II, when Rohingya in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state fought on the side of the British while many Buddhists fought for the occupying Japanese.

Refugee Rohingya cross the Bangladesh border at Naf River. Photo/Getty Images

Refugee Rohingya cross the Bangladesh border at Naf River. Photo/Getty Images

In 1982, Burma’s junta passed legislation identifying ethnicities entitled to citizenship and the Muslim group were not among them. Since then, the country’s 1.1 million Rohingya have been a stateless people, regarded as illegal immigrants and blamed for many of the country’s ills. One spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for refugees has described them as “probably the most friendless people in the world”.

In 2012, the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman sparked a chain of events that left more than 200 dead and an estimated 140,000 homeless. A year ago, violence flared again when nine police officers were killed by armed men, believed by officials to be Muslims. And in August this year, in protest against ongoing persecution, the new Rohingya militant movement, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked Myanmar security outposts, prompting a brutal military counter-offensive.

Myanmar’s army says its security forces are defending the region against the ARSA, which it describes as a terrorist organisation fuelled by a separatist Muslim agenda; it blames Rohingya militants for setting fire to houses in the troubled Rakhine state. Human-rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya accuse the army and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes of running a campaign of arson to drive them out of the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo/Getty Images

Criticism of Suu Kyi

International condemnation of the persecution of the group has been widespread. Myanmar leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has condemned “all human rights violations”, but she has come under widespread criticism for failing to explicitly acknowledge the vicious crackdown that has forced so many Rohingya to flee for their lives.

Last week, in a sign that her civilian government, if not the military, is concerned for the plight of the refugees, she announced plans for a new civilian-led agency, with foreign assistance, to deliver aid and help resettle Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.

But still they come. New drone footage released by the UN shows thousands of Rohingya crossing the Naf River on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Camps are congested, food and medical supplies have to be brought in by foot over a 5km track of muddy terrain. Already the MSF has expanded its inpatient capacity at its Kutupalong medical facility; a second is under construction in Balukhali.

Robert Onus, MSF emergency co-ordinator at Cox’s Bazar, has been in Bangladesh for six weeks, since it became apparent this most recent influx of Rohingya refugees was not going to abate quickly.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the scale, and we still don’t know the full extent of where this is going to go,” he says, speaking by phone from Bangladesh.

A young girl in tears in one of the camps. Photo/Getty Images

A young girl in tears in one of the camps. Photo/Getty Images

“There are still streams of people arriving at the border, and I believe more will come.”

Onus says the new arrivals were exhausted, dehydrated and shocked.

“In the initial phase, a lot of people had suffered acute trauma through interactions with the military. Those coming now have had their villages removed and their livelihoods destroyed, and they are coming into a situation that is incredibly dire.”

The monsoon rains still come and go, and the cyclone season is the next threat for an already vulnerable population.

“If something like that rolls in it would be absolutely catastrophic – there is no way anyone would be able to provide sufficient assistance to a population of this size living in these conditions.”

At a UN Security Council meeting last month, Secretary-General António Guterres called on the Myanmar authorities to end military operations, provide access for humanitarian support and ensure the safe and voluntary return of refugees.

He said the plight of the Rohingya is “the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare”.

Want to help? You can donate to Médecins Sans Frontières.

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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