Thousands of Rohingya, Muslim residents from Myanmar's western Rakhine state, continue to languish in southern Bangladesh almost two decades after fleeing Myanmar.
“Our lives are miserable,” said Mostafa Kamal outside his makeshift hut, not far from the coastal city of Cox's Bazar.
His family fled across the Naaf River, a natural boundary between the two countries, in 1992, and their prospects for returning look bleak. According to the laws of Myanmar, they are stateless.
“If the government changes inside Myanmar, I will return, but I'm not hopeful,” the unemployed 22-year-old said.
There are more than 200,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh today.
Many were persecuted and denied the right to religious freedom, property, as well as to marry or travel without permission, according to Amnesty International, an international watchdog.
Over more than five decades, there have been three major influxes of Rohingya into Bangladesh.
In the last campaign launched against them in July 1991, approximately one-third of this ethnic, linguistic and religious minority fled en masse, resulting in the establishment of 21 refugee camps in Bangladesh.
But their reception in Bangladesh, an impoverished nation struggling to provide for its own burgeoning population, has not always been welcome.
“They don't want us here. They have never wanted us here,” said Mohammad Ismail, who has lived much of his life in Kutupalong refugee camp, one of two remaining government-administered camps about 40km south of Cox's Bazar.
Tensions between local residents and the refugees often erupt over issues of jobs or local resources such as wood and fish, the 21-year-old said.
About 28,000 documented refugees remain, including 11,000 at Kutupalong and another 17,000 at a larger camp at Nayapara, farther south.
And while conditions inside the two camps remain grim, life for the estimated 200,000 outside the camps can be even worse.
Only documented refugees in the camps are provided regular food and non-food rations by the UN, as well as access to rudimentary health and informal primary school education.
Since 1992, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has not been allowed to register newly arriving Rohingya living outside the refugee camps in Cox's Bazaar District.
Many were part of the 1991 influx who had returned to Myanmar, only to once again flee to Bangladesh, at which point they were no longer documented.
In 2007, however, UNHCR successfully negotiated with the government to relocate on humanitarian grounds about 9,000 unregistered Rohingya living in squalid and dangerous conditions along the banks of a tidal river in the border town of Teknaf to a safer site in Leda, about 3km from Nayapara.
The move was facilitated by Islamic Relief in mid-2008 after the agency constructed the new site with the support of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Most undocumented Rohingya, however, continue to live in surrounding villages and towns, or with the local population.
A lasting solution
Ideally, both the government of Bangladesh and UNHCR consider repatriation the most durable solution; it is also the long-term goal of most refugees.
"These refugees can only go back when conditions inside Myanmar are conducive and when they themselves feel it is safe to do so," Stephan Sinclair-Loutit, head of UNHCR's sub-office in Cox's Bazar, told IRIN.
A nominal third-country resettlement programme established in 2005, typically to Canada, was slowly expanding, but remained an option for only a limited few.
In the interim, UNHCR and its partners are working towards improving education and vocational training opportunities within the camps, with the hope of empowering camp residents - making them less dependent on outside assistance, allowing them greater mobility and the opportunity to work outside the camps legally.
Although the authorities generally turn a blind eye to those being employed outside, it was time to make that official, Sinclair-Loutit said.
"We would like them to be able to leave the camps freely. Freedom of movement and freedom of work not just in fact, but in rule," he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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