Limited humanitarian access continues to have an adverse effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh. Aid workers and activists say Rohingya communities fear that what little support they have might disappear as a result of threats made by the Bangladeshi government to further limit humanitarian activities.
“When we hear the humanitarians might leave I feel really bad. Whatever [medical] treatment and support we get, we wouldn’t get it anymore,” said Munrul Indrus, a Rohingya employee of an international humanitarian organization in the Cox’s Bazar area, who declined to give his real name. “At least now we have a latrine and running water and some [medical] treatment - none of those would be there anymore,” he told IRIN.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 200,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, of whom only 30,000 are documented and living in two government camps assisted by the agency, both within 2km of Myanmar. The vast majority live in informal settlements or towns and cities with scant or no assistance.
UNHCR is only allowed to assist those who registered before 1992, when the process was discontinued by the government, leaving most Rohingya - an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority who fled en masse from neighbouring Myanmar decades ago - undocumented. Under Myanmar law, the Rohingya are considered stateless.
This leaves the hundreds of thousands who arrived subsequently in Bangladesh without access to documentation or registration, and living in what Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) describes as “deplorable conditions,” in their latest activity report.
Assistance for the Rohingya has been precarious for some time. In July 2012 the Bangladesh government ordered three prominent international NGOs - MSF, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), and Muslim Aid - to cease aid to the Rohingyas in and around Cox's Bazaar, sparking renewed concern about the deteriorating situation, including increased levels of malnutrition and an environment rife with abuse and impunity.
Dhaka has long insisted that the presence of humanitarian aid organizations in Rohingya communities creates a “pull factor” for other Rohingya to enter the country. It has blamed bouts of sectarian violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Bangladesh on the persecuted minority from Myanmar and has restricted their movement.
In June 2012, Bangladesh's Foreign Minister declared that the government would not be opening the country's borders to those fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar, even though UNHCR had requested that the border be kept open.
More than 176,000 people are now in need across the frontier in Myanmar, following two bouts of inter-communal violence between Buddhist ethnic Rakhine residents and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State in June and October 2012, which left 167 people dead and more than 10,000 homes and buildings destroyed, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported.
In Myanmar, 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), mostly Rohingya Muslims, are living in more than 70 camps and camp-like settings, with another 36,000 vulnerable people living in 113 isolated and remote host communities in Minbya, Myebon, Pauktaw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Sittwe in Rakhine State.
Falling health indicators
In 2010, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a US-based human rights organization, found that acute malnutrition rates in children under the age of five were above 18 percent in some unregistered Rohingya settlements in Bangladesh, exceeding the “critical” 15 percent threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to Refugees International, a UK-based advocacy organization, in 2013 malnutrition rates in one unofficial camp were double the emergency threshold, with 30 percent of the camp population malnourished.
Calling the camps “open-air prisons”, PHR alleged that “refugees are being left to die from starvation”.
A group of Rohingya children play amongst the trees outside their home in southeastern Bangladesh. The majority of Rohingya refugees are undocumented, receiving limited or no assistance
But without a proper account as to how many Rohingya are actually in the country, it is difficult to move forward. “There is a general knowledge in Bangladesh that there are many more Rohingya in the country [than those in registered camps],” said Stina Ljungdell, the UNHCR representative to Bangladesh.
A few organizations operate in both registered and unregistered camps: ACF works to address malnutrition and sanitation, but aid restrictions hamper wider assistance.
Violence against women a major concern
“When one of the local men broke into my house and started to rape me, all of my neighbours knew it, but they didn’t do anything because they know there is no justice system for refugees,” said Binara Salil (not her real name), 38, a Rohingya mother of three who lives in a UNHCR-administered camp.
She reported the rape to the camp administration and the UNHCR immediately afterwards, but it was two to three months before a security guard was stationed temporarily at her home, and the perpetrator was never punished.
Experts also point to growing violence against the Rohingyas, stressing the need for access to justice.
The environment around some of the Rohingya settlements has become more aggressive recently, “with fights breaking out and an increase in violence against women,” Melanie Teff, a senior advocate for Refugees International, told IRIN from London. “Without registration or any legal status in Bangladesh, refugees who fall victim to such violence have no legal recourse,” she said.
Desperate situations call for desperate measures
Without food aid, unregistered people are forced into illegal activities to survive.
“We have latrines and water, but people also need housing and food. As we don’t have it, we have to go find work to pay for it,” said Indrus. In January 2013, the UNHCR released a statement saying that “people [living outside the official camp] have found informal ways to survive without government or UNHCR support.”
But such coping methods can also put people in danger of abuse and arrest. “Whenever we leave our homes to seek work, there are now two check posts even before we reach the first town. If we get caught, the police ask us for money or send us to jail,” said Indrus.
In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, “strong competition over work, living space and resources is inevitable at a local level [and] the stateless Rohingya are left highly vulnerable,” MSF reported in 2010.
Humanitarian hands tied?
Critics say the sheer number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh signals a failed humanitarian effort, with an "embarrassing gap between the numbers in-country, and those officially recognized by the UN agency responsible for protecting them, and the host government," said Chowdhury R. Abrar, professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka. Only 10 percent of all Rohingyas have international protection, he noted.
“Although UNHCR is not involved in the provision of assistance… [we have] for many years been advocating with the Bangladeshi authorities for a more inclusive approach to the displacement of all Rohingyas,” UNHCR’s Ljungdell said.
A 2011 review of UNHCR’s work with the Rohingya in Bangladesh said the agency had been unable “to develop an effective advocacy strategy” for the rights of the hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya residing in “emergency-like conditions” in makeshift sites.
Abrar warns that the effects will not remain limited to Rohingya populations. “No disease outbreak is going to limit itself to the camps, for example; it will affect everyone in the area. The lack of humanitarian access to provide basic services will precipitate this.”