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No respite for Rohingya in Bangladesh

Photo: kutupalong makeshift camp
Refugees forced to flee Myanmar are living in camps without adequate
access to food or health services.
By Jack Goodman
Al Jazeera
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 swelled since violence in neighbouring
Arakan state in Myanmar erupted between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine
Buddhists in June 2012, which caused about 140,000 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.
In Bangladesh, I didn’t have a chance
Salah
Uddin, Rohingya student 
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.