A fight to survive for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
By Naushad Ali Husein, Al Jazeera
In cramped and unhygienic camps thousands of refugees face disease, hunger and uncertainty about the future.
Balukhali, Bangladesh – Hafiz Shafiq’s infant son has been crying all night. He has been suffering from diarrhoea for the past two weeks, and now he has developed a fever and is vomiting.
The seven-month-old’s condition is deteriorating and with no medical facilities in the camp for Rohingya refugees where his family lives in Bangladesh’s Balukhali township – about 45km southeast of Cox’s Bazar – there is nobody to help.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs a free clinic nearly 7km away in Kutupalong, but most of the refugees at Balukhali, including Shafiq, prefer to consult unqualified locals who act as doctors.
A tense Shafiq, who does not know his age but thinks he is between 22 and 25, pleads for money to take his son to one.
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“I never thought I’d be in a position to ask a stranger for money,” Shafiq says.
He opts to consult Khorshad Alam, who works as a private doctor in a room at the back of a chemist shop off a narrow alleyway in Kutupalong Bazar – a market mainly frequented by the Rohingya community. The one-room clinic has two beds, both of which are occupied by women receiving intravenous drips.
The doctor’s lips and gums are stained red from chewing betel nut. His prescription states that he has received Local Medical Assistant and Family Planning (LMAF) training. But according to Bangladeshi law, LMAF medics are not considered qualified to prescribe medication. Still, Khorshad prescribes four types of medication for baby Shahid and administers two injections.
Seven months ago, when Shahid was born, Shafiq was living comfortably with his parents, and running his own shop in his home village of Bodibazar, in Rakhine state, across the border in Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya killed
Although the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries, they were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 effectively rendering them stateless. Their movement is tightly restricted by the authorities.
More than 90,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since October when the military launched a crackdown against what it called Rohingya insurgents after an attack on an army post.
Since then hundreds of Rohingya civilians have been killed. The United Nations has accused Myanmar’s military of committing crimes against humanity.
“They burned homes, and went around raping women in our village,” says Shafiq. “They torched my shop.”
“They hate any marks of Islam – my beard, my cap, my dress,” he adds.
Fearing for his life, Shafiq crossed the Naf River with his wife and son in November, leaving his parents and business behind.
Thousands of other refugees have also found their way to makeshift camps along the border areas, in places such as Kutupalong, Nayapara and Leda in Cox’s Bazar, a major city in southern Bangladesh.
As refugees continue to pour in, many have been directed to the Balukhali camp, which has been set up on salt fields and offers little protection from harsh weather conditions and wild animals.
This is not Shafiq’s first time in Bangladesh. From the age of six, he attended an Islamic madrasa in Cox’s Bazar. He only left three years ago. Educational institutions in Myanmar are segregated and, since the outbreak of violence against Rohingya in 2012, members of the community have not been able to attend university.
It would take him an hour and a half to reach his school in Bangladesh from his village in Myanmar, Shafiq explains. “My village is five minutes from a point where we can cross the border – it was usual for people to cross back and forth,” he says.
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But when Shafiq crossed this time, it was to live in a hut in the Balukhali camp built by his uncle, who left Myanmar years ago. Many other refugees are not as fortunate – too poor to build a hut, they live under tarpaulin in the woods.
Rohingya refugees have been living in Bangladesh since the 1970s. Estimates of the total number vary from 300,000 to 500,000. Most of the refugee camps are located off the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar highway that runs along the Naf River that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Balukhali camp has ballooned to accommodate many of the recent arrivals, while many older refugees have moved out of the camps to live as undocumented immigrants within Bangladeshi communities.
Every fortnight, the World Food Programme (WFP) gives 25kg of rice and fortified food to the most vulnerable Rohingya families in the camps.
It also runs a supplementary programme for young children and pregnant and lactating women, while the MSF regularly conducts immunisation campaigns among the children.
But the WFP only recently began distributing food at Balukhali. They say they will now do so every 15 days.
In February, an aid ship from Malaysia delivered supplies, some of which reached the Balukhali camp.
The refugees say they have been receiving food rations through unofficial channels.
“We get about 5kg of rice every few days,” explains Shafiq, adding that he doesn’t know where it comes from.
The Bangladeshi government has strongly discouraged the distribution of aid to Rohingya refugees and banned three NGOs from doing so, saying that it will encourage more to cross the border.
When approached by Al Jazeera, both the interior and the foreign ministries declined to comment on this.
“Any truck containing aid is turned back at the Morichya checkpoint [a checkpoint along the highway where the refugee camps are located], unless they have express approval from the government,” says social welfare activist Abul Kashem, who regularly organises shipments of aid to the camps.
“We have to tell the authorities that the material is for locals. That is the only way they allow the trucks to pass.”
A WFP official told us on the condition of anonymity that it took much effort on the organisation’s part to obtain the government’s approval to distribute aid to Rohingya.
But as the refugee numbers swelled, more official aid did start to trickle into the camps.
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“The International Organization for Migration distributed blankets, soap, torches, water pitchers and other basic supplies to each family,” explains Shafiq, who recalls how “the mood at the camp was very happy” when that happened.
Life at Balukhali
When I first visited Balukhali camp, which has been built on a recently deforested hill, in the first week of February, there were just over 800 huts. Two weeks later, it had grown to more than 1,700. Locals from a nearby village were selling building materials at the camp’s entrance.
The huts are made of plastic sheets stretched over bamboo frames. The sand-battered sheets are covered with tree branches and dry leaves to shield them from the sun.
Each rectangular hut is about 2.5 metres wide and 3.6 metres long. You must stoop to enter but may just be able to stand upright at the point where the roof is highest.
At night, the residents fear that wild animals will enter the camp from the adjacent forest. “We moved our house a few days ago because we were scared of the elephants,” Shafiq says.
Until recently, there were no toilets in the camps and men could be seen urinating in the sand. Others would go into the forest for more privacy.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it is to adapt to not having toilets,” Shafiq says.
Risk of disease
Toilets have recently been installed, although the refugees say they don’t know who provided them. Some credit residents of nearby villages, others say it was religious organisations.
But even since their installation, the smell of faeces has intensified as more people arrive at the camp daily.
Activist Kashem, who occasionally volunteers for NGOs, believes that there is a risk of a cholera outbreak. Four Rohingya residents, including two children, at Balukhali camp have died of diarrhoea in recent weeks.
About a month ago, the NGO SHED distributed water filters to every hut in an effort to contain the outbreak of disease. Before that, the refugees drank water directly from the tube wells installed for them by local residents.
Kashem is concerned that the rains, which are still several weeks away, will worsen the already poor hygiene conditions.
Almost all of the refugees have friends and relatives who fled before them. Like Shafiq, many fall back on these networks for survival. This is especially true in Balukhali, where most have no means of making a living.
“[The] day before yesterday we had only rice with salt [for lunch], because there was nothing else. Today is a good day, there is tilapia fish and vegetables,” says Shafiq.
But other refugees are facing even greater hardships. Mohammed Hashem, 38, and Noyon Shona, 30, for example, have to take care of their five children as well as four of their nephews, who were orphaned in the latest round of violence in Myanmar.
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The country’s military set fire to the houses in their village, Hashem explains, and the villagers tried to escape whichever way they could. But Hashem’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t survive.
“My brother was a big man,” he says. “He could not escape. He was shot by the Burmese [Myanmar] armed forces while trying to flee.”
‘One day at a time’
Hashem is the only breadwinner in his family. He works in a paddy field for about 300 Bangladeshi Taka ($3.74) a day when work is available. But still his family eats only one meal on most days.
Shafiq spends most of his time at the newly built mosque leading prayers, teaching children at the madrasa, and delivering sermons. He says his only source of income is a small honorarium he gets as the mosque’s imam.
An LED light bulb in his hut reveals the special status Shafiq enjoys, as a local villager has shared the electricity from his own solar panel with him for free.
The hut is divided by a curtain and Shafiq’s wife, Rokeya Begum, joins the conversation from behind it only when she is addressed.
Rokeya, 22, endured a difficult pregnancy. She gave birth by caesarean section and required expensive treatment during and following the procedure.
Shafiq paid for this with loans, and sometimes cash from friends and acquaintances he has made in Bangladesh over the years. “I used to feel ashamed, but I can’t any more,” he reflects.
Unpacking his blue plastic paan (betel leaf) box, Shafiq laments: “If I was in Myanmar, I could show you how we honour guests. We always have extra food in the house. We always entertain our guests at home. But right now we’re just scraping by one day at a time.”
Searching for work
Being in close proximity to a port, construction sites and salt fields, the refugee camps in Kutupalong, Nayapara and Leda offer better opportunities for the refugees to earn a living.
The main road passing through the Leda camp is a bustling bazaar, with hundreds of shops run by refugees.
But Balukhali is isolated and there are few work opportunities here. There is one main grocery store run by a resident from a nearby village, and a few tea stalls, which are also mostly run by villagers. A few of the refugees help out in local people’s houses, but most must rely on finding work as labourers on farms.
Jamal Hossain, 18, and Ezhar Hossain, 25, (who are not related) have to travel from the camp to Cox’s Bazar for work.
It’s a gamble, because they may or may not get work at the end of it. For the past five days they have been fortunate to have found work in paddy fields. Between the two of them, they were paid 1,200 Taka ($15) for a day’s labour. But they had to spend nearly half of it on travel as it costs around 280 Taka per person for a round trip to Cox’s Bazar.
“If we don’t get work one morning, we have to spend out of our pockets to get back home,” explains Jamal.
Even though the security forces do not formally restrict the movement of Rohingya, Shafiq says they often endure targeted searches at checkpoints. “If they find out a person is Rohingya, they’ll search their things, and often harass them.”
Seeking the light of education
The Myanmar government announced on February 15 that it had ended its military operation against the Rohingya. “I have been in constant contact with my parents and siblings, and they are safe back home,” says Shafiq.
But, despite the hardships in Bangladesh, Shafiq and Rokeya are not planning to return home. “We will stay where the chances are best to educate our son,” says Rokeya.
“I want him to learn all different subjects, and not be limited,” says Shafiq.
There are no schools in Balukhali. The madrasas teach only Islamic studies and the language of instruction is limited to Arabic. There are no options for children to learn Bengali or English.
The primary schools at the camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara are restricted to registered and older refugees. But even if Shafiq’s son were to somehow gain access to one of those schools, anything beyond primary level will be legally impossible if the current situation prevails.
Government schools only admit those with identification documents, which only a handful of Rohingya refugees are able to procure.
Through his work at the mosque and madrasa, Shafiq has become popular with residents of the nearby villages. He hopes one of them will eventually be able to help him enrol his son in a school. “A cleric from Feni invited me to go back with him, and said that he could help me,” he says.
“Right now he [Shahid] is young. When he is older, I want to educate him. It is the only way he will be a man.”
In January, the Bangladeshi government proposed relocating the Rohingya refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.
Shafiq says people at the camp believe that the government won’t force them to leave.
“If it’s a nice place, people would go, but we’ve heard that it floods and that it’s not quite habitable.”