(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours

    Ten-year-old Soe Min Aung can’t remember the last time he spoke with one of his Muslim neighbours: a bamboo fence has cleaved his community in half, separating his Rakhine Buddhist family from the Rohingya on the other side.


    Stakes of wood have been pounded into the middle of the dusty path that once joined the Rakhine and Rohingya sides of Pam Mraung, a village of 500 people located four hours north of the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe.


    The Rakhine villagers erected the fence six years ago, when a wave of race-fuelled riots swept over parts of the state and spilled into other areas of Myanmar. Buddhists and Muslims attacked each other, fed by rumours and hate speech that tapped into generations of distrust.


    "It's better we don't live together with the Kalar," said Maung Win, a Rakhine farmer who lives near the fence. He used a derogatory term for Muslims in Myanmar, a diverse but majority-Buddhist country.

    While such fences aren’t the norm in mixed villages in Rakhine, communities throughout the state are still deeply divided.

    More than 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military purge in the northern townships last August. Myanmar’s government says its military was responding to border attacks by a small group of Rohingya fighters; a UN investigation says the military response was organised, pre-planned, and likely amounts to genocide.


    Communities across the state continue to be split by a gulf of misunderstanding, fear, and apartheid-like policies that isolate the Rohingya from their Rakhine neighbours.

    But even in villages like Pam Mraung, important economic ties tether the divided communities together: Rohingya send their children to sell fish to the Rakhine villagers; the Rakhine sell the Rohingya vegetables, or bottles of purified water. Researchers say such links may one day help build trust between the two sides.


    But the longer the restrictions remain in place, rights groups warn, the more difficult it will be for the communities to learn to live together again.


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Rohingya work at a river near Pam Mraung village. The two communities are physically separated, but economic relationships still tie Rohingya and Rakhine together.

    “We just don’t want any trouble”


    While international media attention centred on last year's Rohingya refugee exodus from the north, the flashpoint for those who live elsewhere in Rakhine was the violence in 2012.


    ☰ Read more: Those who stayed – Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya


    The Rohingya were excluded from Myanmar’s 2014 census, making it hard to know how many of them are left in the country after last year’s exodus, when more than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighbouring Bangladesh.


    The UN has estimated that 470,000 “non-displaced” Rohingya still lived in Rakhine State at the end of 2017. In addition, more than 120,000 internally displaced Rohingya are confined to multiple camps, which are mostly concentrated around the capital, Sittwe.


    The government has said it intends to close the camps, which was one of dozens of recommendations made last year in a commission on Rakhine State chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.


    However, rights groups have said this could entrench the existing segregation if Rohingya are simply moved elsewhere and continue to be denied basic rights such as freedom of movement.


    In mid-November, an attempt to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar failed after the refugees refused to return to Rakhine State.


    And some Rohingya are still trying to flee the state. On 16 November, Myanmar authorities said they had arrested 106 Rohingya on a stranded boat near Yangon. The Rohingya had reportedly left displacement camps in Rakhine State to try and reach Malaysia. Police said they later shot and injured four Rohingya men in Ah Nauk Ye, an IDP camp east of Sittwe, after detaining two men alleged to have helped smuggle the group.


    After the riots, Rakhine in Pam Mraung pieced together the fence, blocking off the Buddhist and Muslim sides of the village. Today, the wooden posts are joined together by a bamboo lattice, which is replaced a couple of times each year.


    Through the holes in the fence, Rakhine villagers can see their Rohingya neighbours, and their Rohingya neighbours can see the Rakhine. But meaningful interaction is limited.


    Instead, rumours and distrust fester. The further away from the fence the Rakhine villagers live, the more horrific the stories become. "During the violence in 2012 two women were disembowelled by the Kalar," said one Rakhine woman, lowering her voice. Her home is a five-minute walk from the fence, toward the far end of the Rakhine side.


    Maung Win, the farmer, hadn’t heard of the killing the woman described. "I see the Muslims every day and we sleep pretty well here," he said, laughing.


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Maung Win, an ethnic Rakhine, lives near the fence that splits Pam Mraung village in half.

    Still, he thinks the two communities are better off apart. He believes the Rohingya are thieves and drunks. “We just don't want any trouble," he explained.


    Kept apart


    Longtime divisions between Rakhine and Rohingya communities have been reinforced by years of apartheid-like policies that have institutionalised segregation. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are broadly derided as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they say Rakhine State is their rightful home.


    After the 2012 riots, the government forced about 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, into barren camps, where they remain cut off from their former villages and livelihoods and almost completely dependent on humanitarian groups for survival.


    But Rohingya living elsewhere in the state also face strict curfews, heavy restrictions on their movements, and difficulty accessing hospitals and schools. Rights group Amnesty International says that Rohingya children in some areas aren’t allowed to attend classes with Rakhine children; in others, government teachers refuse to teach in Muslim areas. Amnesty says these policies amount to apartheid – a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.


    "The movement restrictions mean a teenager with something as simple to treat as a small, infected wound cannot access care and medicine to heal it,” said Elise Tillet-Dagousset, a human rights researcher who authored the group’s study on apartheid policies in Myanmar.


    “It means a father cannot visit his daughter who has been detained for travelling without a permit. It means a five-year-old child would have never met someone who is not from his village or community.”


    Along the shoreline of a river near Pam Mraung, Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old who lives on the Rohingya side of the village, stood shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun. He had been transporting stones across the river all day long. He is paid to do so by a Rakhine neighbour.


    While the monetary exchange keeps him connected to the Rakhine side of the village, much of Saed’s daily life is still defined by animosity and official neglect toward his community. The fence that separates him from his Rakhine neighbours is a lesser problem than the wider restrictions that marginalise the Rohingya.


    He doesn’t remember the last time a government teacher came to instruct children on the Rohingya side of his village. If he wants to visit a neighbouring village, he has to pay local authorities a bribe of about 50,000 kyat – roughly $30, or a quarter of his monthly salary. And he’s mindful of the nightly curfews that the Rohingya must adhere to, and of his Rakhine neighbours.


    As the sun began to set, Saed grew visibly nervous: “I need to be back in my village before 5pm or there will be trouble.”


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Mohammed Saed, a 19-year-old Rohingya man, works for one of his Rakhine neighbours. He faces daily restrictions that severely limit where he can go.

    Ties that bind


    Yet even amid the deeply entrenched segregation, generations-old economic relationships still link the Rohingya and the Rakhine.


    "In many cases, economic interactions are the main or only tie left to connect the two communities," said Anthony Ware, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne. He has studied social cohesion in Rakhine State since 2011 and is working on a study examining what still ties the Buddhist and Muslim communities together.


    Trade between villages and interdependence in agriculture – Rakhine hiring Rohingya to plant rice, for example, or sharing the costs of rice-threshing machines – were the first things that were restored after last year’s violence, he said.


    While the economic relationship is rarely equal, with Muslims being far more vulnerable to exploitation than the Rakhine, Ware said such everyday interactions may slowly rebuild trust and overcome tensions.


    “If you regularly interact and talk to each other, then minor issues are less likely to become big problems,” he said.


    In his work with local researchers, Ware has seen villages where Rohingya and Rakhine re-established social connections through such business ties. He has even seen communities where the two sides had begun to play Chinlone – Myanmar’s popular national sport, played with a rattan ball.


    “Given how deep the tensions run, finding villages like this is astonishing,” he said.


    There are no inter-communal games of Chinlone in divided Pam Mraung. But back on the Rakhine side of the village, farmer Maung Win wondered what life might be like without the fence. Business might improve, he thought, if he could sell his produce to more customers.


    “Maybe it would be better if there was no fence,” he said. “Better for selling my crops.” Then he looked around warily, in case anyone was listening.


    For now, the youngest generation on the Rakhine side of Pam Mraung are growing up knowing only segregation and distrust.


    “Not afraid. I am not afraid of the Kalar,” said Soe Min Aung, the 10-year-old Rakhine child. The other children around him giggled. He doesn’t remember a time when things were any different.


    Do he or his friends ever venture to the other side to play with the Muslim children? He looks puzzled. No, he would never do that, he said. There’s a fence.

    (TOP PHOTO: Rakhine and Rohingya neighbours in Pam Mraung village can see each other through holes in the fence. CREDIT: Verena Hölzl/IRIN)


    “It's better we don't live together”
    In a Myanmar village, a bamboo fence separates Rohingya and Rakhine neighbours
  • The uphill battle to forge peace in Myanmar's Rakhine State

    Kyaw Hsan is trying to bridge the deep rift between his own ethnic Rakhine community and the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, where 700,000 Rohingya were driven out last year in a purge the UN says could amount to genocide.


    But he faces a monumental task countering generations of hatred and distrust that culminated in last year’s humanitarian crisis. Kyaw Hsan and other local peacebuilders here in Rakhine State are often forced to work in the shadows, facing threats from sceptical hardliners and increasing government restrictions.


    "The communities are now even more polarised than before,” he said.


    Yet the civil society group he runs, PDI Kintha, and other local groups are determined to try to change the deeply entrenched attitudes that led to ongoing ethnic violence, starting with young people in both the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.


    They hold social studies classes, mixing in English lessons and job skills training with broader discussions about violence. But even using the term “human rights” in their workshops is out of the question – seen by many here as analogous to promoting rights for the Rohingya.

    “In the end, change for the Rohingya will not come without the attitude change on the ground that only these local peacebuilders can drive.”

    Generations of Rohingya have been excluded from citizenship in Myanmar under the country’s race-based citizenship laws. Many in Myanmar see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – particularly in Rakhine State, one of the country’s poorest regions.


    In 2012, riots erupted in Rakhine and spread to other parts of the country after rumours emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped and killed by a group of Muslims. People from both communities attacked each other. Roughly 200 people died. Here in central Rakhine, some 120,000 Muslims – most of them Rohingya – were forced into barricaded camps, where they have become almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. Rohingya throughout the state face apartheid-like segregation and restrictions on their movement.


    Kyaw Hsan’s workshops don’t address these tensions directly. Instead, he spurs discussions about participants’ own experiences with violence, letting the topic of ethnic conflict emerge organically.


    By sharing their feelings, participants learn how to deal with their anger, he said: "People here don't know how to communicate non-violently.”


    “Only local peacebuilders can drive change”


    Kyaw Hsan started his organisation six years ago when Myanmar’s former military junta rulers were beginning to loosen their control of the country. At first, he wanted PDI Kintha to support the fledgling democratisation process. But after the bloodshed in 2012, he quickly realised he needed to focus on healing the fissures among ethnic communities in his home state.

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    A group of ethnic Rakhine people attend a storytelling workshop in Sittwe run by PDI Kintha, a local peacebuilding organisation.

    At a recent class in the provincial capital, Sittwe, Soe Sandar Oo sat in a circle with eight other participants. Like her, they are ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and, like her, they grew up with prejudices against their Muslim Rohingya neighbours.


    As a child, Soe Sandar Oo was taught to fear the Rohingya. Her ethnic Rakhine parents would warn her that the “kalar” – a derogatory term for Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar – would come for her if she refused to do her homework.


    Now, the 21-year-old wants to learn how to build bridges between the bitterly divided communities.


    “People have to start to listen to each other, or we will never have peace in Rakhine State,” she told IRIN.


    For now, Soe Sandar Oo’s class is made up entirely of other ethnic Rakhine. If all goes well, they’ll later merge with Rohingya participants.


    There’s no quick fix for the generations of hatred that led to the riots here in 2012, or to last year’s Rohingya exodus from northern Rakhine. Myanmar has resisted international pressure over its treatment of the Rohingya, insisting that it is building “inter-communal cohesion” on its own terms. Rights groups have called for Myanmar’s top military generals to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.


    Over the long term, however, any lasting change will come from the local peacebuilding efforts already on the ground, said Anthony Ware, a researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne who specialises in community development in Rakhine. Within Myanmar, international criticism is easily dismissed as naivety or an attack on the country’s sovereignty.


    “International pressure alone won’t solve this crisis,” Ware said. “In the end, change for the Rohingya will not come without the attitude change on the ground that only these local peacebuilders can drive.”


    ☰ Read more: Trust and context in local peacebuilding


    While media coverage has frequently focused on ample examples of visceral hate speech against the Rohingya in Myanmar, there are also more progressive views to be found. But international donors looking to invest in peacebuilding initiatives have also stumbled trying to find the right voices.


    This year, Internews, a US-based media development NGO, collaborated on a reporting project with a local newspaper in Sittwe, the Development News Journal.


    Aung Marm Oo, the paper’s editor-in-chief, told IRIN that Internews was not happy with his paper’s reporting. He believed it was because his newspaper referred to Rohingya as “Bengali” – commonly used in Myanmar to imply that the Rohingya come from neighbouring Bangladesh, rather than Rakhine State.


    Peacebuilding is one of his paper’s main missions, he says, but using the name “Rohingya” is impossible.


    If he did, he says, he would likely be shut down by government authorities – or worse.


    “Even if we don't receive any donor funding for this reason, we definitely can't use the term," he said, adding: “Sometimes our life is more important than anything.”


    In a statement, an Internews representative said the concern was more focused on the quality of the paper’s reporting.


    Internews asked the newspaper to improve the “tone and conflict sensitivity” of its reporting: “There was some progress, although challenges remain,” said Michael Pan, country director for Internews in Myanmar. He added that “conflict-sensitive” journalism can contribute to peacebuilding.


    The work of grassroots groups like PDI Kintha is funded by grants from a range of international donors.


    But in general, finding the right local partner is a common pitfall for international agencies looking to support peacebuilding programmes in divided Myanmar, according to a representative from a US-based donor that works on hate speech.


    "They know what we want to hear. But if they really believe in it, is another question,” said the representative, who asked not to be identified because the issue was considered sensitive.


    David Mathieson, a Myanmar-based conflict analyst, believes the difficult work of building social cohesion in Rakhine State is a long-term process that must be powered by locals themselves.


    “There’s a lot more localised peacebuilding going on that foreign eyes don’t always discern,” Mathieson said.


    “These issues won’t mend in the short-term project cycles of international donors. It will take generations and the problem needs to be understood in local contexts, too.”


    But the tense work of building peace has become even more precarious since last August’s military crackdown.


    Kyaw Hsan says security is tighter and he finds it harder to get permission to run his workshops from local authorities here in central Rakhine as well as in northern Rakhine, the flashpoint of last year’s violence. At the same time, Rakhine parents are increasingly wary of sending their children to classes with Rohingya, while young Rohingya hoping to attend are often shackled by restrictions on their movements.


    Taking risks for peace


    Some local peacebuilders say they face threats and public opposition to their work.


    Htoo Htoo, a consultant from Yangon who ran peacebuilding workshops for an international organisation in Rakhine, quit his job this year when he was threatened by both Buddhist and Muslim residents in one village. Both groups were upset that he was working with the other side, he says.

    "If people know too much about what we are doing, we might be isolated, if not attacked.”

    Htoo Htoo left his job, frustrated and afraid for his life. "Peacebuilding is really risky," he said. He asked that his real name not be used.


    Other local civil society leaders also prefer to work away from the spotlight.


    "If people know too much about what we are doing, we might be isolated, if not attacked,” said Ye Linn Aung, who runs a separate organisation that works with young Rakhine and Rohingya. He asked that his organisation not be identified and for his real name not to be used.


    People to People, a Sittwe-based peacebuilding organisation, also holds workshops for young people from both communities. Like other groups, the organisation doesn't advertise its classes as teaching “human rights”.


    Instead, they’re often disguised as education measures, aimed at engaging on more palatable subjects like English classes and skills training, rather than addressing ethnic tensions head on.


    "Here, when you say human rights, the people think you advocate citizenship for the Muslims," said Nyi Nyi Zaw, a 25-year-old instructor with the organisation.

    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Nyi Nyi Zaw, an ethnic Rakhine teacher with the peacebuilding organisation People to People, says he was formerly prejudiced against his Rohingya neighbours: “I used to be blinded just like the people who come to our trainings.”

    He recalls criticism from hardline Rakhine nationalists after the group attended a meeting with interfaith activists a couple of years ago. The organisation was forced to make a public apology before a well-respected monk.

    "People accused us of working with the Muslims and betraying Rakhine State," he said.


    From hatred to understanding


    Nyi Nyi Zaw, an ethnic Rakhine, understands the roots of his community’s hatred and fear: he once felt the same way about the Rohingya.


    During the 2012 violence, he saw photos on the internet that purportedly showed local Rohingya killing Rakhine civilians. Later, when he attended classes run by the same organisation he now works for, he learned the photos were fake – taken from another country’s conflict.


    "I used to be blinded just like the people who come to our trainings," he said.


    While reversing generations of distrust won’t happen overnight, local peacebuilders here believe creating opportunities for young people to share their feelings is essential to fostering long-term understanding. While the UN says Myanmar’s military was responsible for the worst of last year’s anti-Rohingya violence, Rakhine civilians also took part.


    "If you address social cohesion, then this type of violence will at least be less likely to happen," said Kyaw Hsan, the PDI Kintha founder.


    Ye Linn Aung believes people in Rakhine need an “attitude change” – that’s the long-term goal of his organisation’s workshops. For now, he’s planning a new topic for an upcoming social studies class: a lesson on the 1994 Rwandan genocide.


    Bluntly addressing last year’s Rohingya purge in northern Rakhine State may be off limits, for now. “But if all goes well, the students will connect the dots,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: A police post has been erected inside the grounds of an empty mosque in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe. CREDIT: Verena Hölzl/IRIN)


    “People have to start to listen to each other, or we will never have peace”
    The uphill battle to forge peace in Myanmar's Rakhine State
  • How do you find one refugee in a million?

    Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya camps are home to nearly one million refugees, but Atiqur Rahman Rabbi, a Red Cross aid worker, is searching for just one.


    In a dusty tent perched high above the camps, Rabbi’s assistant shouts into a microphone: “People from Myanmar: if you know Abdul Jalil, please come to the mosque.” The words spill down from the hillside tent to the teeming settlements below.


    Abdul Jalil’s family and countless others were torn apart when Myanmar’s military drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh last year. A year later, families on both sides of the border are stepping up the search for missing relatives, and efforts to help bring them together continue.

    Volunteers with the International Committee of the Red Cross, working with local Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, are trying to reunite fractured families both within Bangladesh’s camps and across the border in Myanmar. The missing may be among the estimated 6,700 or more Rohingya killed last year. Or they may still be living in villages or have been imprisoned in Myanmar. They could also be “lost” in Bangladesh’s vast camps.


    "We tend to forget that people not only need food and water in a crisis situation; they also need information," says Odoardo Girardi, head of an ICRC family reunification programme in Cox's Bazar.


    Every day, a team of 20 Red Cross volunteers scours Bangladesh’s camps to track down lost relatives. They act as detectives, following leads and investigating clues. And they deliver news of loved ones’ whereabouts and letters, which Red Cross colleagues have collected in Myanmar.


    Rabbi, 25, oversees the field work of the Red Cross volunteers tracing refugees in the camps. On the day IRIN visited, his team is trying to deliver a letter from Abdul Jalil’s family, whom Red Cross volunteers located in Myanmar.


    "We tend to forget that people not only need food and water in a crisis situation; they also need information."

    In front of the mosque, Rabbi chats with curious refugees who have gathered around him. Abdul Jalil has moved tents, Rabbi learns. It takes several days to finally deliver the letter.


    Rabbi sees both joy and desperation as he goes about his daily work. "I have had people hug me, and I have seen people scream over the news that their loved ones were dead," he says.


    Whether the news is good or bad, Rabbi is convinced his job is essential, saying: “In order to move on, it is very important for people to have certainty.”


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    A Red Cross volunteer speaks to Rohingya refugees as he searches for a missing person in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps.

    Sleuthing across borders


    Once a week, the Red Cross takes on new cases in an aid distribution tent in the middle of the camps. A year after the latest Rohingya exodus, such sessions are packed with refugees desperate for information about their missing loved ones. Requests for help have increased as infrastructure improves in the camps and as more refugees hear about the programme.


    Since August 2017, the ICRC says it has helped more than 9,000 families, linking refugees in Bangladesh with family members still in Myanmar, or bringing news of the fate of missing loved ones.


    Most of the connections are made through phone calls. Volunteers also shuttle letters between refugees in Bangladesh and relatives imprisoned in Myanmar.


    Myanmar’s government allows Red Cross volunteers access to detention facilities in Rakhine State – part of the the Red Cross’s family reunification work in crises around the world.


    It’s unclear how many Rohingya are incarcerated in Myanmar. Government and military officials there say last year’s crackdown was a response to attacks on border areas by a small group of Rohingya fighters. In January, state media published a list of 1,400 men, women, and children that it claimed were members of “a terrorist group”; rights groups say such assertions were made without any judicial process or evidence.


    Ahmed*, a 16-year-old living in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, hasn’t seen his mother in more than a year. Now, he at least knows she’s alive.

    Ahmed says he saw soldiers shoot his father and arrest his mother when Myanmar’s military swept through his village last August. He was also arrested, but soon released, and he and his four younger siblings rushed across the border to Bangladesh.


    In February, a Red Cross volunteer tracked down Ahmed and gave him a message from his mother.


    “I hope my children are healthy,” the letter read. “I am praying for you. Pray for me, too.”


    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Ahmed shows a picture taken the day his family was split up in August 2017. Myanmar authorities arrested him and his mother. He was soon released, but his mother remains in prison.

    It was the first news from her in six months. “We wondered every day if our mother was well or not,” Ahmed recalls.


    Generations of refugees


    Rohingya themselves have also struck up ad hoc efforts to bring missing families together.


    Last September, during the first frantic weeks of the exodus, Kamal Hossain, 31, found a woman weeping in the camp where he lives; she had lost her daughter in the chaos of her escape from Myanmar. Kamal, a Rohingya who came to Bangladesh as a child in the 1990s, got a loudspeaker and broadcast the child’s name.


    Thirty minutes later, a man walked up, the missing girl by his side. “The mother fainted,” Kamal recalls.


    He says he announced the names of about 1,400 other “lost” Rohingya and reunited half of them with relatives. Most reunions came last September, at the height of the crisis. But Kamal keeps a list of those still missing.

    “If he is alive, he will find us.”

    “Maybe one day it will become useful again,” he says.


    A year on, though, some refugees have stopped looking for their missing relatives.


    Mosuda, 57, fled her village in Myanmar last August, losing track of one of her three sons in the turmoil. She says she has never heard of programmes to help find missing relatives.


    The family searched for their 19-year-old son when they made it to Bangladesh. Now, Mosuda says she will have to accept whatever fate her son has met.


    He could be dead, in prison in Myanmar, or somewhere else in the camps in Bangladesh, she says, adding: “If he is alive, he will find us.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Atiqur Rahman Rabbi and a colleague walk through Bangladesh’s refugee camps in search of a missing person. The Red Cross says its programme has helped to re-connect more than 9,000 families with missing relatives. CREDIT: Verena Hölzl/IRIN)

    (* Name has been changed)



    A year after Myanmar exodus, “detectives” reunite fractured Rohingya families
    How do you find one refugee in a million?
  • Identity and belonging in a card: How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail toward statelessness

    The pale green identity card in Nurul Hoque’s hands is torn and brittle. Time has faded the image of his grandfather, taken years before, to a ghostly outline.

    The worn document is his grandfather’s decades-old identity card from Myanmar. It’s proof, Nurul says, that he and his family are rightful citizens of a country that now rejects them.

    “It’s all we have left,” Nurul says, placing the faded card on a thin sleeping mat in his family’s new home: a flimsy tent perched on a hilltop in southern Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya refugee camps.

    The document and those held by other families in the camps are reminders of lives left behind, clung to with the distant hope that they might one day permit a return to Myanmar. But they’re also a record of the bureaucratic and often convoluted ways in which Rohingya in Myanmar have been systematically stripped of citizenship, belonging, and their very identity.

    The question of citizenship in Myanmar strikes at the core of successive policies and actions that have disenfranchised, trapped, and now evicted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

    The Muslim Rohingya may be the best-known example of statelessness in Myanmar, but several other ethnic minorities fall foul of its haphazard and selectively enforced citizenship laws. Created in 1982 by Myanmar’s then-ruling military junta, the law favours the majority Bamar community and others judged to be among the country’s “national races” and excludes others from full citizenship.

    The government continues to build its stalled citizenship plans on the 1982 law, which stipulates that only members of ethnic groups that settled within Myanmar before the British conquest in 1824 are automatically eligible for full citizenship. But rights groups and the Rohingya themselves see the law more starkly: an attempt to make an unwanted population stateless.

    "The Rohingya were made stateless in order to justify excluding them,” says Chris Lewa from  The Arakan Project, a Southeast Asia-based rights monitoring group.

    More cards, fewer rights

    Myanmar’s military launched a violent crackdown across northern Rakhine State last August, after a group of Rohingya fighters staged attacks on police and border posts. Nurul and his family joined more than 670,000 people who swept across the border into Bangladesh.

    Most Rohingya lost nearly everything in the exodus, escaping on foot with whatever they could carry. One survey in Bangladesh’s refugee camps estimated that 94 percent of the new arrivals had no identification whatsoever. But some Rohingya families like Nurul’s rushed to save their now-scarce identity cards.

    A dizzying array of official identity documents circulate among some Rohingya refugees: worn registration papers like the green card belonging to Nurul’s grandfather, frayed and yellowing temporary cards that replaced them, even crumpled up pieces of paper that served as receipts when the last official documents were stripped away.

    Over decades in Myanmar, each form of ID was declared invalid or taken from the Rohingya; each replacement carried fewer rights and more restrictions.

    The faded green card belonging to Nurul’s grandfather, officially called a national registration card, was given to non-foreign male residents of Myanmar, then known as Burma, after 1951. Female residents received a pink equivalent.


    Nurul Hoque sealed his family’s ID cards and old photos in plastic after arriving in Bangladesh. He keeps them under his pillow when he sleeps.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Nurul Hoque sealed his family’s ID cards and old photos in plastic after arriving in Bangladesh. He keeps them under his pillow when he sleeps.

    In 1982, however, Myanmar’s then-ruling junta enacted its new ethnicity-based citizenship laws. Authorities collected the green and pink registration cards from the Rohingya, later replacing them with “white cards” — temporary documents that left a generation of Rohingya in legal limbo.

    Understanding the importance of their grandfather’s green card, Nurul’s family buried the document deep in the ground rather than handing it in.

    “We had to keep it as safe as possible,” he says.

    Before his family fled Myanmar last year, Nurul hastily dug up the old ID, taking it to Bangladesh along with a few old photos and his own newer white card. Nurul sealed the tattered cards and photos in plastic casings after he arrived. When he goes to sleep at night, he places all the documents together under his pillow.

    His cherished ID cards may be worthless in Myanmar, but for Nurul, they’re the only documents that show he once belonged.

    “Maybe the day will come that I need the cards to prove where we are from,” Nurul says.

    “No Rohingya in Myanmar”

    "There are no Rohingya in Myanmar" is a slogan heard on a regular basis in teashops, at nationalist rallies, and even in Myanmar's parliament. A lawmaker recently asked the government to officially declare that Myanmar does not have a Rohingya ethnicity. Instead, many in Myanmar call the group “Bengali” — a derisive nod to their perceived origins, and a label that most Rohingya emphatically reject.

    The Rohingya have a long history in the area now known as Rakhine State. But to many in Myanmar, they’re seen as intruders from Bangladesh.

    SeeThe roots and risks of Myanmar’s new Rohingya insurgency

    Long before last year’s exodus, Rohingya in Myanmar faced mounting restrictions that curtailed their everyday movements. Amnesty International calls it “a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounts to apartheid”.

    Hasina Khatun, 40, reached Bangladesh last September after a 13-day walk from her burnt village in northern Rakhine. In the previous five years, she says, local authorities had barred fishermen from her village from going out to sea, cutting off their main source of food and income.


    Hasina Khatun says she ran into her burning home to save her family's ID cards. \
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Hasina Khatun says she ran into her burning home to save her family's ID cards. "They show that we were once a part of Myanmar," she says.

    But she also recalls a time when things were different. Her father, she says, was once a citizen of Myanmar, able to travel freely and conduct business. A generation later, Hasina wasn't allowed to leave her home after sunset.

    Like Nurul’s family, Hasina hid her father’s green card, suspecting that she might not get an equally valuable document in return. Last September, Hasina says, soldiers set fire to her home in Rakhine State. Before she fled, she jumped into the burning home to salvage her family’s identity documents.

    Her neighbours told her she was crazy to try something so dangerous. But to her, the documents are invaluable.

    “I lost my money, but at least I could save the ID cards,” she says. “They are more important to us anyway. They show that we were once a part of Myanmar."

    Race and citizenship

    There are 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. The Rohingya aren’t one of them.

    Nick Cheesman, a researcher at the Australian National University who has studied how law is used for political purposes in Myanmar, says the divisive 1982 citizenship law laid the groundwork for ethnicity to be tied so closely to citizenship. While Cheesman says the law is still technically broad enough to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, in practice, it has been used to shut them out.

    "In Myanmar, membership of a national race has surpassed citizenship,” he says. “Consequently the Rohingya try to be recognised as such, which makes other groups in the country angry.”


    Hashim Ullah, 30, lost all his important papers when he fled Myanmar. His only ID is a refugee card issued in Bangladesh. It grants him little in the way of rights, but allows him to eat: “Without this card, I can’t get food rations,” he says.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Hashim Ullah, 30, lost all his important papers when he fled Myanmar. His only ID is a refugee card issued in Bangladesh. It grants him little in the way of rights, but allows him to eat: “Without this card, I can’t get food rations,” he says.

    Even with the majority of northern Rakhine’s Rohingya population now ousted from the country, new forms of identification keep piling up.

    Myanmar authorities want the Rohingya to apply for yet another type of ID: “national verification cards”, part of a highly criticised multi-step citizenship process. While the government says cardholders will eventually be able to apply for citizenship, most Rohingya refused to sign up, fearful that yet another new identification card would leave them even worse off than before.

    The process also initially required Rohingya to self-identify as “Bengali” — a deal-breaker for most Rohingya. As of the end of last year, only about 7,600 of these cards had been issued since 2010, according to government statistics.

    In Bangladesh’s refugee camps, authorities have registered the incoming refugees using biometric data. The resulting plain cards identify cardholders as “Myanmar nationals”. For most Rohingya now living in the camps, the cards are the only official ID tying them back to their home.

    SeeThe risks of registering the Rohingya

    Before 55-year-old Lalu fled Myanmar last year, authorities there forced him to return his “white card”, which the government invalidated in 2015. While these temporary cards fell far short of any form of acknowledged citizenship, they had still permitted Rohingya holders to vote in elections, until the 2015 general election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy sweep to power.

    In exchange for his white card, authorities handed Lalu a slip of paper.

    “Look at this crappy thing,” Lalu says, unfurling a blueish-green receipt.

    He says authorities in Myanmar told him he could go anywhere with the document. “But in reality, I couldn’t even move one kilometre,” he says bitterly.

    Still, he holds on to the receipt, folding the paper six times and putting it back in his pocket.

    “Maybe one day I’ll need it.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Before his family fled Myanmar last year, Nurul Hoque dug up his grandfather’s old ID, taking it with him to Bangladesh along with old photos and his own identification cards. He hopes they will one day help prove where he is from. Verena Hölzl/IRIN)

    (Photos of identification cards have been edited to remove personal information)


    Identity and belonging in a card: How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail toward statelessness
  • Fumbled repatriation sows fear in Bangladesh Rohingya camps

    It’s midday in Bangladesh’s sprawling Rohingya refugee settlements. A group of men hover under the shade of a tiny bamboo shack, trading strands of information about the topic on everyone’s minds: the future of several hundred thousand refugees here in the camps.

    Mohammed Salim is one of some 688,000 Rohingya driven out of Myanmar since August 2017. Like many, he’s heard the rumours – and they scare him.

    “We are hearing that Bangladesh wants to send us back,” Salim said.

    For Salim and many Rohingya here, there is only a trickle of information through the camps, often from news programmes downloaded at an Internet cafe, or from patchy radio broadcasts that have to be translated into the Rohingya dialect before filtering through the crowds.

    "The Bangladesh government doesn’t talk to us,” Salim said. “We know nothing."

    That said, news of plans to send Rohingya back to Rakhine pervaded the camps this week, sparking fear and protest.

    Officially, at least, Myanmar says it’s ready to begin resettling Rohingya. Bangladesh says it needs more time to prepare. Just about everyone else – rights groupsUN organisations, and Rohingya themselves – say even the thought of refugee return is startlingly premature and dangerous.

    A 23 January deadline to begin repatriations came and went with little movement. The Rohingya remain crowded in tenuous settlements etched into hillsides or sprawled out along low-lying floodplains. But fear is building as the uncertain prospects of repatriation loom overhead.

    Refugee homes in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    The Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh have swollen to the size of a city, but have little of the infrastructure. Aid workers say the upcoming monsoon and cyclone seasons could have a devastating impact on the fragile settlements.

    Voluntary returns?

    Behind a rusty fence, Bangladesh government employees inspect an overgrown patch of land that sits between overflowing camps near the border town of Teknaf. In the 1990s, the land was the sight of a transit camp built for a previous wave of Rohingya refugees who were being returned to Myanmar. For now, it’s still just an unkempt field.

    Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, said preparations for repatriation are continuing, even though the government this week announced actual returns would be postponed until an unspecified date.

    “It’s a complicated process and we want it to be sustainable,” he told IRIN. “There is no shortcut for it.”

    Bangladesh, he said, is continuing to prepare lists of possible returnees – he would not elaborate on how the names would be selected – and to set up transit camps so that returns can start.

    However, any eventual returns, he stressed, would be “safe and voluntary”.

    Ultimately, however, Kalam said the onus is on Myanmar to treat Rohingya with dignity, and for the international community to pressure Myanmar to do so.

    “We are by no means responsible for this artificially created disaster and we cannot solve all these problems,” he said.

    But there are major questions about what Rohingya refugees will face if they are returned to Myanmar. Rights groups and fleeing Rohingya say Myanmar’s military, along with groups of ethnic Rakhine, burned entire communities to the ground and slaughtered civilians. The military has denied almost all allegations of widespread atrocities, while the government has stonewalled a UN-led investigation on Myanmar soil.

    Myanmar says it is preparing a temporary settlement near Bangladesh’s border where repatriated Rohingya can live until their homes are rebuilt.

    But rights groups point out that tens of thousands of Rohingya in central Rakhine State have been stranded in once-temporary displacement sites since 2012, when a wave of communal violence ripped through the state.

    SeeUN, aid groups debate Myanmar internment plan for Rohingya refugees

    Unresolved issues in Myanmar

    Crucially, there’s little to suggest these tensions have subsided in the months since the most recent Rohingya exodus. Rohingya are still denied citizenship in Myanmar, and this week US politician Bill Richardson resigned from an advisory panel set up by Myanmar’s government to help resolve the Rohingya crisis, saying he would not participate in a “whitewash”.

    Against this backdrop, the uncertainty of the repatriation plans permeate back across the border in the teeming Rohingya camps. This week, the day before returns were rumoured to be beginning, hundreds of Rohingya staged a protest.

    Nur Kabir, a 50-year-old man who used to work as a teacher in Myanmar, held up a sheet of white paper with a list of demands that must be met before any returns can happen: citizenship, guaranteed safety, compensation for lost property.

    Returning home now, many Rohingya say, is simply unfathomable.

    “If Bangladesh can’t keep us,” Nur said, “we will go to the sea and die”.

    And even as repatriation plans continue to be drawn up behind closed doors, refugees are still fleeing Myanmar – five months after this crisis began.

    Dil Mohammed, 70, fled his village in Rakhine State in January 2018
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Dil Mohammed, 70, fled his village in Rakhine State in January, just before repatriations were first scheduled to begin. Between 14 and 20 January 2018, an estimated 506 new refugees arrived in Bangladesh, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

    When representatives of Myanmar and Bangladesh met last week in Naypyitaw and announced they had finalised return plans, 70-year-old Dil Mohammed was hiding in a forest.

    He waited six days before he finally crossed the Naf River, which separates his former home in Myanmar from the refugee camps of Bangladesh.

    A week ago, he sat exhausted on the concrete floor of a closed shop in Teknaf, clutching a worn fleece blanket.

    He says Myanmar soldiers chased him and his neighbours from their homes in Ah Lel Chaung village, in Rakhine’s Buthidaung Township. He says the soldiers stripped him of all his valuables: gold, solar panels, mobile phone, and rice – then forced him to record a video saying it never happened.

    “We didn’t want to leave like all the others,” he said. “But then the military took our houses and we had no other choice."

    About 40 other people from Dil’s village sat around him as he spoke, visibly drained after spending a night on a boat.

    “There are many more of us on their way to Bangladesh,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: A view of a Rohingya refugee settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in January 2018. Aid groups estimate that more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees now live in the area. Verena Hölzl/IRIN)


    Refugees are determined to stay put, even while authorities push forward with return plans
    Fumbled repatriation sows fear in Bangladesh Rohingya camps
  • In northern Myanmar, a long-forgotten conflict flares out of view

    Doi Ra hid with her family in an outhouse toilet as the soldiers gathered up the men from her village, blindfolded them, and tied their hands together. Then the beatings started.

    "They beat them until they vomited blood," she said, kneading her hands as she recalled how the soldiers struck her neighbours with boots, guns, and sticks. One of her neighbours was battered so badly that his skull cracked, she said.

    Doi Ra is one of the latest people to be displaced by a long-festering conflict in Myanmar’s north. Along with 50 other people who fled after six trucks of Myanmar soldiers rumbled through her village last July, Doi Ra and her family have taken shelter in a church compound near the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina.

    As she spoke, the men around her lowered their heads and stared at the ground. At a nursery next door, children fervently sang songs in the Kachin language.

    The tent she now lives in with her family is sweltering during the day and frigid during the northern nights. Her makeshift home floods during monsoon rains. “But at least here we are safe," Doi Ra said.

    Others aren’t so lucky. 

    While the international community is fixated on the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, where a military crackdown has driven more than 655,000 Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh since late August, the conflict in the country's north is smouldering out of view.

    Doi Ra and her family are among some 100,000 people who have been displaced by clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states in a conflict that has been simmering since 2011.

    Now, the current dry season is expected to escalate violence even further as Myanmar’s military moves to consolidate its hold over the fractured territory. Rights groups say government restrictions have squeezed humanitarian access to a trickle, leaving tens of thousands of displaced people without aid, caught in the crosshairs between the military and rebel groups.

    Uprooted again

    Northern Myanmar is just one of multiple hotspots around the country where the army’s battles with an array of ethnic armed groups have trapped civilians in the middle. In Kachin State, the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011 between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, one of the country’s biggest ethnic armed groups, has thrown the north into a war zone.

    Both the military and the rebel groups are fingered for rights abuses. Amnesty International accuses the army of executions, indiscriminate shelling, using civilians as human shields, and forced conscription. Armed groups are accused of abductions, killings, and recruiting child soldiers.

    Much of this violence has simmered in remote regions where aid groups have little access. About 40 percent of people displaced by the conflict live in areas outside government control, according to the United Nations.

    But Myanmar has also placed new curbs on access to areas even under its authority, mirroring the more publicised restrictions in place in Rakhine.

    "The other day our aid workers had to turn around halfway because the soldiers didn't let them pass," said Lu Ja, who works with the Metta Development Foundation, a local NGO distributing aid in Kachin and northern Shan states. “They accused us of supporting the KIA.”

    Myanmar authorities have not allowed the UN to travel to displacement sites in areas beyond government control for more than a year, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

    At the same time, the crisis in Rakhine State has frayed relations between the government and aid groups, making some organisations more reluctant to speak publicly about problems in the north. Representatives of multiple aid groups declined on-the-record interviews with IRIN.

    “We are self-censoring ourselves out of fear to be forced to leave the country otherwise, which would mean we could no longer influence anything at all,” one country director of an international humanitarian organisation in Myanmar told IRIN.


    A signboard supporting Myanmar's defacto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is seen in Myitkyina.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    A signboard supporting Myanmar's defacto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is seen in Myitkyina. Myanmar's national peace process, promoted by Suu Kyi, has stalled.

    Aid access in Myanmar’s north is at an all-time low, according to David Baulk, a researcher with Southeast Asia-focused Fortify Rights. The rights group is preparing a report warning of the worsening impacts of aid blockages in Kachin.

    “Everything aid groups are trying to do is keep people alive,” Baulk said. “The government and specifically the military therefore need to immediately lift these arbitrary restrictions.”

    While aid access has fallen, the violence has escalated. In the first full week of 2018, new clashes displaced more than 1,200 in northern Shan State.

    “Displacement camps are meant to be safe havens for civilians, but yet again we see men, women, and children fleeing violence for the second or even third time,” said Pierre Péron, OCHA’s spokesman in Myanmar.

    This has left civilians in constant flux. Seng Mai was forced from her home in 2011 as the KIA ceasefire fell apart. But the conflict’s shifting front line reached her again last year, when military shells struck her displacement camp near the Chinese border.

    Seng Mai’s house was burnt; her cattle ran away. "In the camps, I can't work to improve my family's situation. I am just helpless," she told IRIN.

    Generations of conflict

    The fighting in Myanmar's northern borderlands is one of the world's longest-running civil wars: the KIA and Myanmar’s army have been locked in conflict since the 1960s. A national peace process promoted by Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has stalled. A third round of negotiations scheduled for the end of January has yet to be confirmed. The war here now spans generations.

    Lu Ja, the aid worker from the Metta Development Foundation, grew up with the civil war. “Now, I am 62 and the fighting is still going on," she said.

    Local aid workers complain that donor support is falling, shrinking food supplies and foisting even greater hardships on displaced families; Lu Ja said school dropout rates are rising as international funding plummets.

    “You can only send your kids to school if you have enough to eat. How shall we educate our youth?” she asked.


    Gum Sha Awng, who works with the Metta Development Foundation, worries that the conflict in northern Myanmar has been overshadowed.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Gum Sha Awng, who works with the Metta Development Foundation, worries that the conflict in northern Myanmar has been overshadowed.

    The conflict, meanwhile, seeps into daily life even in the relative safety of Myitkyina. 

    Women seldom leave their homes at night. Young men are told not to venture outside; they’re afraid of being forced into the conflict.

    In the city’s hotels, signboards warn of no-go zones off limits due to fighting. The road to the airport is peppered with military checkpoints that pop up after sunset, when roadside trash piles are set on fire, shrouding the town in a milky smoke.

    Locals fear the violence here is also hidden from the wider world.

    On Christmas Eve, an important night for the majority-Christian Kachin, mortar shells hit the rebel stronghold, Laiza. Gum Sha Awng, who also works with the Metta Development Foundation, spent the night worrying for his colleagues and friends.

    “While the whole world looks at the Rohingya crisis, our suffering gets overshadowed," he said.

    (*The names of people displaced by conflict have been changed to protect their identities)

    (TOP PHOTO: A boy stands in the middle of a displacement camp on a church compound near Myitkyina. Verena Hölzl/IRIN)


    Aid restrictions leave tens of thousands stranded in a war that spans generations
    In northern Myanmar, a long-forgotten conflict flares out of view
    More than 100,000 people displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states
    The dry season military offensive has brought a fresh wave of violence
    Aid restrictions are worse than ever, while donor support has dwindled
    Peace negotiations stall as the conflict is overshadowed by the Rohingya crisis
  • Rohingya refugees overwhelm aid groups in Bangladesh

    There are two lines on the edges of the Naf River: on one side, refugees in ragged clothing, waiting to cross and leave Myanmar behind; on the other, Bangladeshis ready to welcome them with water bottles, apples and biscuits.

    Two men step away from the river, balancing a bamboo pole on their shoulders. An elderly woman slouches in a chair suspended from the pole. As they approach, the Bangladeshis gathered on one side reach into their pockets to capture the scene on smartphones.
    “I didn’t expect to see such bad things here,” says Babul, a local who came to help.
    Almost 400,000 Rohingya refugees have surged into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine State over the last three weeks. They come on foot, plodding for days through underbrush and dirt trails; they arrive by boat, risking the monsoon season waves along the coast, or the currents of the Naf River, which divides the two countries along Bangladesh’s southern edge.


    Men line up for aid distribution in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Men line up for aid distribution in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
    Aid groups say the influx has exhausted relief supplies and pushed existing refugee camps – filled by earlier waves of Rohingya refugees – to the breaking point. With no space left in the camps, refugees are spreading out on roadsides, or spontaneously forming new settlements in open spaces.
    “It’s beyond overcrowded,” says Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. “A few days ago, we thought it was at saturation point. Since then, more people have arrived. And they’re still coming.”
    For mile after mile, refugees line the roads around the overflowing camps. Some sit on old rice bags, filled with what belongings they managed to bring with them. Luckier ones carry a solar panel, or a chicken. Others carry their elderly relatives on their backs. For now, the Rohingya are safe in Bangladesh – but they have nowhere to go.

    Driven out

    Rohingya have been rendered stateless in Myanmar, where they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, particularly by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the western Myanmar state. The tension has triggered violent clashes in the past, but the most recent surge is the largest exodus of Rohingya refugees in decades.
    On 25 August, a little-known group of Rohingya fighters, calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked police and border posts in Rakhine State.
    The ensuing crackdown by Myanmar’s military has been ferocious. Refugees reaching Bangladesh tell stories of mobs torching homes, soldiers cutting down unarmed civilians, and entire villages expelled.
    The UN Security Council has called for “immediate steps” to end the violence. The UN’s top rights official says it could amount to a “textbook” case of ethnic cleansing.
    Amnesty International says there is mounting evidence of a “mass-scale scorched-earth campaign” across northern Rakhine. The rights group matched satellite imagery, photographs, and video with dates and locations told by new arrivals to pinpoint burnt villages and what it says is irrefutable evidence of a deliberate campaign to push Rohingya out of Rakhine.
    Myanmar denies targeting civilians. The government says the military is responding to “brutal acts of terrorism”.

    Dire needs

    In a bare field near an overflowing refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, 30-year-old Anuara Begum sits under a makeshift tent – scant protection against the pouring rain. 
    "There is killing and beating in my village,” she tells IRIN. “How will I ever be able to go back home again?“
    Anuara is cradling a newborn baby in her arms. She gave birth to the girl, she says, while crouched among the trees, hiding from soldiers in a forest near her village in Rakhine. Anuara holds her newborn in the air; there is a swollen abscess on her daughter’s back.


    Woman with baby
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Anuara Begum, 30, says she gave birth before fleeing to Bangladesh from her home in Rakhine State, Myanmar. The journey lasted nine days.
    Aid groups have called for $77 million in emergency funding until the end of the year. But that was a week ago, when a preliminary response plan budgeted aid for 300,000 new arrivals. There have been 100,000 more in the last week – exhausted and hungry like Anuara, or in desperate need of medical care, like her newborn.
    With aid groups overwhelmed, countless Bangladeshis from Cox’s Bazar and beyond have moved in to offer help.
    “We urgently need support from abroad,” says Mohammed Azae, a businessman. "We are a poor country and the refugees are a big problem for us."
    After deciding he must help, the 32-year-old had folded cloth around some biscuits and driven straight to the border area.
    On once-pliant roads that have become perpetually gridlocked, Azae and other Bangladeshis stood on trucks and threw clothes and food to the outstretched arms of running children. Refugees wrangled over goods, some drummed against vans stuck in the chaos, begging for money. An elderly man, appearing confused or just desperate, asked for a canvas sheet.

    Struggling to cope

    Years of Rohingya influxes have made Bangladeshis ambivalent about their neighbours – torn between an urge to help and fear of the impacts of their sheer numbers. Now, the magnitude of the current exodus has drawn an outpouring of support.
    Jashim Uddin, a local aid worker, normally helps Bangladeshis in need; today, he’s assigned to work with the new refugees.
    But he sees rising food prices and dwindling fish supplies at the local market. He sees Bangladeshis struggling as day labourers, and wonders how the area will cope with even more newcomers.
    “The humanitarian aid is limited,” he says. “The influx is not.”


    Rohingya refugees take shelter from the rain in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
    Verena Hölzl/IRIN
    Rohingya refugees take shelter from the rain in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
    The most gravely injured of the new Rohingya arrivals are brought to hospitals further afield. The paediatric ward at Chittagong Medical College Hospital, a five-hour drive from the border, has been taking in patients.
    Doctor Adnan Walid’s newest patient arrived with a gunshot wound. The bullet, he says, pierced the child’s torso before exiting cleanly on the other side.
    The child is a six-month-old baby boy.
    He survived. But a bullet and a baby? In Walid’s mind, the two things just don't belong together.
    “How can you suspect a baby to be a terrorist?” he asks.
    (TOP PHOTO: Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Myanmar arrive in Bangladesh. Verena Hölzl/IRIN)
    Rohingya refugees overwhelm aid groups in Bangladesh

Support our work

Donate now