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Homeless and Unwanted: The Desperate Plight of Burma’s Rohingya People

June 4, 2013

Young girl in front of makeshift background

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A Rohingya girl living in one of the Bangladeshi camps

Conditions in these refugee camps are desperate. The cobbled-together huts that pass as housing have no electricity and limited access to water. Disease is rife under such squalid conditions, as is violence against the vulnerable, and little aid comes in from the outside world. This is the home of the Rohingya, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Landless and poverty-stricken, they are unwanted by both the country of their birth and the states to which they have fled.
Man carrying boy

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A man and child overlooking the area

Photographer Artur Gutowski captured these touching images of Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong and Shaplapour camps on the Burmese-Bangladeshi border. “According to Human Rights Watch, the conditions in the camp are more desperate than in any other area where the organization is active,” says Gutowski. “Illiteracy is widespread. Due to their unofficial refugee status these people have no medical care, which means that even minor illnesses can cause death. Disease is common, mortality is high.”
Children playing in forest

Photo: Artur Gutowski

Refugee children play in a nearby forest

It’s hard to imagine a life terrible enough to compel people to come to camps like this. To understand why they are here, we have to look at the recent past of the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group believed to originate from Arakan in Burma. There is contention surrounding their origins, but they are linguistically tied to the Indo-Aryans from India and Bangladesh. This separates them through both religion and language from the Buddhist majority in Burma, who speak Sino-Tibetan languages.
Girl holding book

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A girl clings to the Koran

Regardless of their historical origins, the modern-day Rohingya consider Arakan their home. There has been conflict over the years between the Muslim minority and the Burmese junta who ruled the country. Amnesty International and other human rights groups allege that official discrimination against the Rohingya goes back decades. There has also been violence on both sides of the conflict. Some Rohingya joined Islamic militias, and the Burmese military have been accused of inciting riots against minorities.
Child being bathed

Photo: Artur Gutowski

Water is a scarce resource at the camps

In 1982, the Burmese government declared the Rohingya non-citizens and aliens within their own country. Restrictions were put on their travel, they were not allowed to own land and were even limited to two children. “The Nasaka [Burmese border guards] used to come and take away the men and boys,” 70-year-old Rohingya refugee Nozir Hossain told The Guardian in June 2012. “They forced us to work as laborers without pay. This was only done to us, not to Rakhine [a Buddhist minority group] or anybody else.” Hossain saw his two sons murdered by the Nasaka and Rakhine.
Boy farming

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A boy tends to a tiny, allotted piece of field

According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya “are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas continue to be used as forced laborers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labor in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade.”
Rohingya children

Photo: Artur Gutowski

Refugees at the Kutupalong camp

In 2012, a series of riots erupted between the Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine State. The exact cause of the riots is not certain. Some pinpoint the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman – allegedly by a group of Rohingya – and the reprisal killings of 10 Muslims. However, there had been tension between the two peoples for a while before this.
Small girl in front of makeshift background

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A young refugee girl poses in front of a makeshift background

The Rakhine State riots ended with at least 168 fatalities, damage to property, and an estimated 100,000 displaced people. The Burmese government’s response of the riots has been criticized by human rights organizations. They say that Rohingya people were arrested, placed in camps, brutally treated and denied aid. Even Burmese Buddhist monks have called for a campaign against the Rohingya, and threatened those who traded with the Muslim minority.
Carrying dried branches

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A Rohingya carries a load of branches

Since 1978, the Rohingya have been fleeing Burma, when officially sanctioned violence led to killings, rapes and religious persecution. More than 200,000 Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh. Thousands have also headed to Thailand over the years, where they have received little sympathy. There are tales of shiploads of refugees, sometimes with their hands bound, being towed out to sea and left to the mercy of the ocean.
Small boy in front of makeshift background

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A young Rohingya refugee

There are currently around 230,000 Rohingya people living in Bangladesh, with 30,000 of them in the official government refugee camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara. Most of the registered refugees have never seen their homeland because 70 percent of them were either born in the camps or arrived as young children. They are the lucky ones, assured food, water, healthcare and primary schooling by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 1992, the Bangladesh government has not allowed the UNHCR to register any new Rohingya refugees.
Carrying firewood for fuel

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A camp resident carries wood

Most Rohingya in Bangladesh live outside the official government refugee camps as illegal migrants. Since they are not official refugees, they get little help, if any, from the UNHCR. However, the Bangladeshi government tries to make conditions as unappealing as possible for any would-be refugees. They have even rejected a proposal by the UN to help fund a health and education initiative in the Cox’s Bazar region, even though impoverished Bangladeshis would also have benefited. Also, as in Thailand, there are reports of refugee boats being sent back out to sea by Bangladeshi coast guards.
Girl in front of makeshift background

Photo: Artur Gutowski

Another young refugee poses for Gutowski

Those living in the official camps may have better access to basic needs, but things are still far from easy, and some feel that they are living without hope. “This is no life,” says Shaufiq Alam, a 30-year-old refugee at the Kutupalong camp. “I’ve been living here for 20 years. If I’d stayed in my village, I would at least have had access to education. The situation in the camp has had a destructive influence on our lives.”
On the field

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A group of refugees on their tiny patch of field

There are no secondary schools at the camps, and refugee children are barred from local schools – although a lucky few manage to sneak in. “There is nothing for us here,” Nozir Hossain says. “We would like to go back home… back to farming our land. I hope the government will be fair and give us our rights.”
Man outside hut

Photo: Artur Gutowski

A Rohingya man prays at his son’s grave

Recently, the plight of the Rohingya has attracted more international attention. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been noticeably silent in the past about the situation, has recently condemned the compulsory two-child policy. “It is not good to have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights either,” she said. However, despite the attention, things do not seem to be improving for the Rohingya. It doesn’t help that both radical Buddhists and Muslims in Burma have been involved in communal violence against each other.
Woman carrying baby

Photo: Artur Gutowski

70 percent of Rohingya at the camps were either born there or arrived as small children

For those in the camps, there is little hope. “UNHCR tries to teach the refugees crafts they might find useful in later life – carpentry, tailoring and making soap,” says Gutowski. “Some of the refugees can make money by distributing food rations among the other inhabitants of the camp. However, they earn only $22, which is not enough to feed a family.”