‘Mafia-run’ camps adding to the misery of Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees
By freelance contributor Kayleigh Long in Myanmar, ABC News
For the 5,000 residents of Baw Du Pha 2 refugee camp on the outskirts of Sittwe — the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State — going to the toilet means defecating openly in a field.
That open space separates the Rohingya people’s ramshackle shelters from the vast expanse of the Bay of Bengal.
Women wait until nightfall and go in groups for safety.
On the morning after last month’s Cyclone Roanu hit, a 60–year–old woman we have called Amina Begum to protect her from reprisals told the ABC the camp’s toilets had been destroyed by “the cyclone”.
She was, however, referring to Komen — the tropical cyclone that battered the Rakhine coast in July 2015.
A year–long stalemate between the Rohingya representatives on the Camp Management Committee (CMC) and independent non-government organisations (INGOs) over corruption has stalled the construction of new toilets.
‘Beneficiaries of corruption’
Humanitarian workers say refugees being exploited is a problem in camps across the state.
“On a daily basis, the biggest issue I face in implementing projects is the CMCs. Many of them don’t want to improve life in the camps,” a refugee worker said on condition of anonymity.
“They’re essentially mafias appointed by the former government, with no accountability to the (current) Government nor their refugee populations.”
The sentiment was echoed by a Rohingya leader, who said the CMCs were self serving and undemocratic.
“Some of them have become rich … as beneficiaries of corruption,” he said.
In another camp, a father explained that his family’s already–meagre food ration was being skimmed and hygiene kits intercepted for black market selling by their CMC.
His two-year-old son, his belly swollen with the bloat of malnutrition, was not receiving nutrient bars.
INGO workers in Rakhine report physical threats made against staff, and access to some camps has been extremely difficult.
In one instance, an attempt to install a new CMC resulted in an all–in brawl and the burning of an INGO facility.
CMCs have strongarmed their way into lucrative construction projects, carrying out work with inferior materials and skimming profits.
“They try to extort (INGOs) for a percentage, if not the entire contract … in this context, that can mean a lot of money,” an NGO worker said.
Using inferior quality materials on CMC-contracted projects has meant a shorter lifespan for facilities — with tragic consequences.
In late 2014, a seven-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister were playing in the Dar Paing refugee camp.
They reportedly jumped on the concrete cover of a toilet waste facility.
It crumbled and the pair drowned in a pit of human excrement.
Camps home to over 100,000 people
The Government of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, which won last November’s election, has now formed a special committee to tackle the dysfunction of the camps in Rakhine State.
Since taking office, the country’s first democratically elected Government in decades has launched a 100–day action plan on all fronts.
For her administration, the handling of Rakhine presents an enormous challenge.
The Rakhine Buddhist nationalist party, Arakan National, holds enormous sway in the state and the perception that the INGO community provides disproportionate support to the Rohingya Muslim population is widespread.
Also fuelling tensions are the decades of neglect by successive military juntas, which have left the resource-rich state impoverished.
Around 120,000 Rohingya have lived in the squalid refugee camps since state-wide, deadly Buddhist-Muslim clashes in 2012.
The one million Rohingya in the region are widely considered by Rakhine nationalists and the broader Myanmar population to be “illegal Bengalis” from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Ms Suu Kyi has repeatedly been accused of having little interest in the plight of the Rohingya.
Rohingya subject to severe restrictions
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been stripped of official documentation, rendering them stateless.
They were disenfranchised prior to the 2015 election, face severe movement restrictions and must obtain official permission to marry.
They are also subjected to a two-child limit to quell fears about their numbers.
UNICEF has pointed to the fact that of the rural communities in Rakhine — both Buddhist and Muslim — 71 per cent do not have toilets.
But Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Myanmar, David Scott Mathieson, said given the restrictive nature of the camps, this was immaterial.
“The conditions of the camps around Sittwe continue to be a serious humanitarian and human rights concern and the deplorable conditions are further exacerbated by restrictions on movement and access to services,” Mr Mathieson said.
For Ms Begum, who was among the 2,224 people whose shelters burnt down in a fire in early May leaving them in makeshift canvass accommodation, the impact of CMC corruption is felt every day.
“We have already lost everything, twice,” she told me.
“But our biggest problem is the lack of latrines. We have no dignity.”