The Rohingyas in Bangladesh: "There's no happiness in this place"

Fifteen years ago, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled from Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar to Bangladesh, pushed out of their own land by discrimination, violence and forced labour practices carried out by the Myanmar authorities. Over the years, most of them have been returned to Myanmar while others have continued to come.

Today the problem still remains on the Bangladeshi side of the border: more than 26,000 refugees who refused to go back, remain in the two official camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara, south of Cox's Bazaar, and an unknown number of Rohingya are living in the Teknaf area, near the border with Myanmar.

Over 7500 live in the squalid makeshift Tal camp and around 2200 on the beach area of Shamlapur. A minority of them has managed to integrate into Bengali society. Some of these people have returned after being repatriated and other new people continue to arrive.

From bad ...

People who were registered at the time of the big influx in 1992 and who have been living in the official refugee camps for all of this time have access to food rations, basic healthcare and some education. However, their life is limited within the camps' fences. They depend on aid and cannot go and work outside the camp; their future looks bleak and hopeless.

R. is a 17-year-old mother. She was only two when she arrived at Kutapalong Camp and has lived there since then. She doesn't know anything of the world outside the camp. She tells stories about family separations: she came with her mother, brothers and grandparents, but her mother had to go back to Myanmar, her brother left the camp after having problems with camp authorities, her grandparents died. She is now married but her husband is in hiding somewhere because he's not registered in the camp. "I haven't seen him in more than five months," she said. "I want to stay in Bangladesh but outside the camp. There is no happiness in this place." worse

But for those unregistered people scattered across the Teknaf region, it is even harder: they survive doing hard work for little money and must constantly fight for access to basic things such as food, water and healthcare.

Tal camp, as it is commonly called, consists of small ramshackle shelters situated in an area between the river Naf and the highway leading to the city of Cox's Bazaar. More than 7,500 Rohingya men, women and children have sought refuge on a stretch of land 800 meters long and 30 meters wide, where food and potable water are scarce and access to the local healthcare facilities is limited. Since May 2006, MSF has run a clinic near Tal camp to improve the hygiene and health conditions there.

J. came to the MSF clinic with her two premature twins. She is only 18-years-old and got married eight months ago, but her husband later left her. He already had another wife and refused to look after J. and her babies. In March, she was evicted from her shelter by the authorities because it was located too close to the road. Now she lives with her mother. They survive by begging.

Living where they landed

Finally, some Rohingyas have never moved from the beach area where they landed with their boats after fleeing from neighbouring Myanamar. They live on the long beach of Shamlapur, where they can only live from fishing. They work for Bengali boats owners and receive very little money for their work.

N. came from Myanmar 14 years ago. Since then she has lived on the beach with ten members of her family: four daughters, two sons and their wives and children. Her husband died six years ago. "We came to Bangladesh because the Burmese army took our land, our cows and everything we had," she said. "Here we live on fishing. Everything we fish is taken by the boat owner and we get paid depending on how much we fish."

If one considers that there are roughly an average of 10 fishing days each month and that during the three months of the rainy season (from June to August) it is almost impossible to go fishing at all, it is obvious that their income is not enough to sustain a family of ten.

However these are the problems that most people have to deal with in Bangladesh. At least here they do not fear for their lives. "If I go back after all this time, they will put me in jail or shoot me," she added, "here at least they do not say anything."

Beyond that border

The Rohingyas have a long history of crossing the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Long ago, some of them came and started businesses in the Chittagong region, north of Teknaf. The Rohingyas are Muslims like the majority of the Bangladeshi people and their language is not very different from the dialects spoken in these eastern regions of Bangladesh.

Today, however, they are facing great difficulties in integrating into Bangladeshi society. Since 1994, they are no longer recognised as refugees and they face discrimination and exploitation. Their living conditions, both in Tal camp and at Shamlapur beach, are appalling and yet over the past 15 years they have continued to come, leaving their land behind. If Tal camp is where they prefer to be, one can only wonder what it is like beyond that border.