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Oh, Places You’ll Probably Never Go: South of Bangladesh

[Link to original article right above]

February 26, 2013 by 
The Rohingya people are native to Myanmar but of a different ethnic group and therefore considered illegal immigrants. According to the UN they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Many of them have to flee to neighboring Bangladesh where they live in Ghettos and Refugee Camps. I have always been very interested in refugees, and when I had to renew my visa when I lived in Nepal, I decided to check out the South of Bangladesh and a refugee situation I knew nothing about.
Bangladesh is already one of the poorest countries in Asia, and has problems accommodating refuges. Beggar in Chittagong.
Bangladesh is already one of the poorest countries in Asia, and has problems accommodating refuges. Beggar in Chittagong.

How I got there: 

I took a plane from Kathmandu to Dokha, and then I went by bus to Chittargong, which is the second biggest city in Bangladesh and is famous for its Shipwreckyard. My preferences for a holiday might seem a bit weird in retrospect, but I have always dreamed of going to the shipwreck yard. It’s a huge beach where they take apart the biggest ships in the world, by hand.

People living on the street in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
People living on the street in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is famous for being the most densely populated big country in the world and the first morning in Chittagong I saw a lot of people sleeping on the streets. It was kind of weird walking down the street scared of waking people up, but it was easier than when they did wake up. Bangladeshis have a very small sense of personal space. In Norway, conversations are held at a distance of an arm’s length; In Bangladesh it’s more like a little finger. When I stopped to talk to people they would come so close to my face that I had to start smoking cigarettes to use the smoke to make people stay further away. I guess it worked a little bit.
People sleeping in the middle of the road, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
People sleeping in the middle of the road, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The Shipwreck Yard:

Kid on the Shipwreckyard in front of Karachi
Kid on the Shipwreckyard in Bangladesh in front of Karachi
The shipwreck yard was quite impressive, although I never actually went on board any of these ships. Hundreds of workers bash them with hammers and blowtorches and tear the ships apart piece by piece. The beach must be one of the most polluted ones in the world, full of heavy metals and oil and other dangerous shit. The ship graveyard is said to often be used as scenery in Bangladeshi gangster movies — something I would love to do with my acting skills one day.
Shipwreckyard in Chittagong, Bangladesh
Shipwreckyard in Chittagong, Bangladesh

The next day I set off to Cox Bazar. It’s Bangladesh’s beach and holiday city with the longest continuous sandy beach in the world. They say. It is also located close to the Burmese border and not too far from the Rohingya refugee camps. Which is where I was headed.

Some people I meet in Bangladesh.
Some scared people I meet in Bangladesh.
Somehow I had heard about these people who had lived in camps for almost 20 years. Having just moved from Norway to Nepal I had just started to learn about all the different refugee situations where people have been stripped of their citizenship and kicked out of their countries because of their ethnicity or religion.
In Nepal almost a hundred thousand Bhutanese refugees are stuck as a result of the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bhutan, a country that markets itself as the nation where GDP doesn’t matter as they calculate in according to a National Happiness Index. It’s probably easier when you have kicked out one fourth of the population. In Bangladesh the refugees come from Myanmar/Burma, where they are a Muslim minority.

Rohingya muslim kids in refuge camp in Bangladesh

To be able to enter the refugee camps I needed to get special permission from an official officer at an office. I had to write an application for my reasons for wanting to visit the refugee camp and so on. I did it by hand and I made sure to change the last period into a comma, and after I got the approval I added “and take photos” to the application – something no journalist is allowed to do. I had been told it could be difficult to get permission to photograph in the camps because of reports of mistreatments. And I really didn’t have time to find out.
The Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps:

When I arrived to the camp I was briefed on the history and the situation by the officials before a guy started showing me around. I had no idea what to expect when I came to the camp. Normally when you see refugees on TV at home in the West it seems like they always live in those plastic, temporary tents. The camps I visited were built in 1992 and the Roys have since then made small huts where they house their families.

– “Are you here to help?
Passing through the camps the curious children asked the guy who guided and minded me if I was there to help them. Embarrassed for not being there to help, I changed the subject by photographing and showing the kids the pictures. At least it made them smile.

Rohingya refuge in refuge camp in Bangladesh

At the camp school, Mohamed, who had lived most of his life in the camp, told me that they only got 6 years of school. He didn’t think it was enough. I asked him about how his future looked and he just shrugged and told me: “We don’t have a future.”

The teacher and pupils at a school in a Rohungya refuge camp, Bangladesh.

World refuge day t-shirt in the refuge camp.
World refuge day t-shirt in the refuge camp.
Many of the refugees were wearing the “World Refugee Day” t-shirts from previous years at the same time the camp was preparing for it again that coming year.
The women had a sewing competition in advance of the celebrations, but the refugees are not allowed to work outside the camps.

Women sowing in the refuge camp in Bangldesh.

Doctors without borders had set up a field hospital in the camp, and this old man was being treated for something I couldn’t understand.

Old sick Rohingya in the camp, field hospital.

Bangladesh has cut off the support for the refugees so they mostly depend on the help from UN. They get most of their food from the World Food Program.

Rohingya refugees have just gotten food from the world food program.

Before I left I started talking to a young boy who spoke some English. He told me there was no point in asking the refugees how life is in the camps while the Minder aka my tourguide was present. I wouldn’t get real answers.
– “We have no rights, no jobs, no nationality and we live in horrible conditions,” he told me while making sure the man who was my guide, didn’t listen. I wanted to know more, but the Minder scared him away.
The situation was very strange and uncomfortable. I got really sad when I realized that these refugees who had been chased out of their homeland, stripped of their rights, and lived most of their lives in this camp in one of Asia’s poorest countries also didn’t trust the officials working at there.
When the day was over I got on a bus to Cox Bazar and flew out from there. Bus rides in Bangladesh are an adventure of themselves, but I couldn’t stop wondering why I had never heard about these people before.
Beach life in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh
Beach life in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh

Part II: Rohingya’s in the News Now – A Widely Underreported People

Fearless Fishermen Boost Economy

According to the UN there are 800,000 Roys in Myanmar and 200,000 in Bangladesh– where 30,000 of them lived in the camps I visited. The Majority of them live in ghettos in Dokha and Chittargong and try to find illegal work. For the already impoverished and overpopulated Bangladesh, the refugee has been looked upon as a burden for the host country. However, the refugees share the language and religion of their hosts and the UNHCR reported in January that the presence of thousands of Rohingya Muslims actually help boosts net profits for some fishing villages in Bangladesh.

Fishermen in Bangladesh.
Fishermen in Bangladesh.
The locals need the Rohingyas to fish because: “Before, we could only fish in winter, during the dry season. But the Rohingya are fearless, so they can fish all year, even during the rainy season,” said Salem in Teknaf. “The locals need them. The economy depends on them.” Well, perhaps they are so hungry that they will fish no matter what the weather is like. Hunger feeds fearlessness.
Sectarian Clashes Leave Thousands Displaced at Sea

In 2012 a sectarian conflict broke out again between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists. Villages have been destroyed, 650 Rohingyas were killed, 1.200 are missing and 80,000 now displaced. Bangladesh has started to send boats with fleeing Rohingyas back to Myanmar.

Many Rohingyas has run away from Myanmar in boats.
Many Rohingyas has run away from Myanmar in boats.

Rohingyas have also been sent back out to sea on ships from Thailand, where there have also been reports of Rohingya refugees being sold as slaves by Thai officials after arriving illegally to the vacation country.

Last week a ship was found in Sri Lanka with only 30 survivors left. After the ship carrying refugees experienced engine failure and went adrift at sea, more than a hundred people died from hunger and were thrown overboard.
Well if, against all odds, you should find your way to the South of Bangladesh, I am sure you will enjoy and learn a lot from the super friendly and smiling Bangladeshis and their Rohingya visitors. –Mr. Matias