Thousands of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims have poured into neighbouring Bangladesh to scrape a living in makeshift camps. Yet once over the border, many face new hardships. Bangladeshi authorities tore down a refugee camp a month ago without warning. Our Observers describe the daily suffering of a stateless people.

The United Nations has called the Rohingyas one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Since 1978, hundreds of thousands have fled the Burmese state of Arakan – now renamed Rakhine – where they suffer violent persecution at the hands of the state’s Buddhist majority. In accordance with a controversial government law, Burma doesn’t grant the Rohingya people citizenship. Many live in refugee camps that forbid humanitarian aid. Others have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, a country which initially welcomed them in the name of Islamic solidarity but has since toughened its policies.

The camp torn down by Bangladeshi authorities was located near Shamlapur, a fishing village in the district of Cox’s Bazar. The area is famous for the long, pristine beaches that line the Bay of Bengal, making it one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Officials say the camp had to be demolished in order to “clear the area bordering the seafront”. Around 2,500 dwellings were uprooted, forcing thousands of Rohingyas [Editor’s note: 7,000 according to official figures, 35,000 according to a Bangladeshi newspaper] to find new shelter. Some headed towards other so called unofficial camps dotted around Cox’s Bazar. The area is also home to Bangladesh’s two official camps, both of which are overcrowded. According to our Observers, some found shelter in a spot close to the site of the original camp.

“Sometimes, people go 48 hours without food”

Ahmed (not his real name) is a Rohingya who has lived in one of Bangladesh’s official refugee camps for 20 years. He keeps in touch with friends who live near Shamlapur.

Some of the Rohingyas who lived in Shamlapur had been there for 15 years. Overnight and without warning, they were forced to leave: the police came at the beginning of February and told them to pack their belongings and go. They told them that this wasn’t their country and that those who tried to stay would be sent to prison. The camp was completely destroyed.

A number of Rohingyas were able to settle nearby, on the other side of the coastal road, adjacent to a slumtown where Bangladeshis live. Most of the Rohingya there still live under plastic sheets in deplorable conditions. Others have started building shelters using bamboo wood. If they’re lucky they find scraps of plastic that they can use to build roofs.

The camp is desperately under-supplied. They need rice and food with protein. Sometimes, people go 48 hours without food. Some even go door-to-door knocking in neighbouring villages to beg for food.

Moreover, there’s a serious lack of drinking water: sometimes Bangladeshis accept to drive the Rohingyas to the nearest official camp – some 45 kilometres away – so that they can collect water. But most of the time, Rohingyas are obliged to drink seawater or stagnant water from nearby rivers. That’s already resulted in cases of diarrhoea. There’s also a risk of contracting cholera or other illnesses.

Without supplies of clean drinking water, Rohingyas are often forced to drink stagnant water from rivers. Photo taken by Andrew Day.
Without supplies of clean drinking water, Rohingyas are often forced to drink stagnant water from rivers. Photo taken by Andrew Day.

Most male refugees are fishermen and get employed by locals living in Shamlapur who own fishing boats. Rohingyas who go fishing are usually paid around a third less than the Bangladeshis. Although they do the same amount of work, the fishing boat owners say that they live off the back of the Bangladeshis who have been there for longer. It’s not fair.

“There are still many things left to do: there’s an urgent lack of supplies like medicine and drinking water”

Andrew Day is a Canadian humanitarian worker who carries out online campaigns to raise money for the Rohingyas. For several months, he’s criss-crossed refugee camps with a friend to help respond to some of their most urgent needs.

We visited the camp the day before it was destroyed. As soon as we heard about what had happened, we went back to try and help. The Rohingyas whowere able to settle nearby, on the other side of the road, were for the most part welcomed by the Bangladeshis. They accepted to rent them a piece of their land so that they could rebuild their homes. But they had to start from scratch: we helped rebuild the toilets and get a school up and running. We rebuilt an old ruin of a schoolhouse it using bamboo wood.

bangladesh toilettes vant

bangaldesh toilettes apres
Photo showing the toilets before and after being rebuilt. Photo taken by Andrew Day.
ecole avant après (1)
Photo showing the school before and after it was rebuilt. Photo taken by Andrew Day.

“As soon as there’s any dirty work to be done, it’s earmarked for the Rohingyas”

Shamlapur is a relatively small camp and is pretty far from the Burmese border. The area is pretty safe for them, and living side-by-side with the Bangladeshis appears to be working. But that’s far from the case everywhere. In general, living conditions are far more difficult in camps located near important towns and villages or near the border with Burma. These regions are marked by extreme poverty. They’re also rife with organised crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking and prostitution. As soon as there’s any dirty work to be done, it’s earmarked for the Rohingyas who are also often forced to sell drugs in order to survive. Obviously, the fact that they participate in these kinds of illegal activities reinforces the hostile attitudes that some Bangladeshis show towards them. Sometimes the locals stop them from getting access to drinking water.

A Rohingya woman whose water containers were smashed by Bangladeshi residents in a refugee camp. Photo by Andrew Day.
A Rohingya woman whose water containers were smashed by Bangladeshi residents in a refugee camp. Photo by Andrew Day.

The Bangladeshi government doesn’t have any sort of real police to deal with Rohingya refugees. No matter what type of camp they live in, the Rohingyas are suffering enormously in Bangladesh. They have no basic rights, they’re stateless, and they have absolutely no protection. They can be accused of anything. But they can never defend themselves, because their word is always worth less than a Bangladeshi’s.

In Bangladesh, around 30,000 refugees live in official camps. Yet it’s estimated that a staggering 300,000 Rohingyas are actually living in the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees insisted in 2013 that the Rohingyas had “everything they need in order to survive” in official camps. Yet the agency conceded that beyond that, there was “no future and no way to participate in the development of society […] we beg the authorities to create more opportunities for them.” The Bangladeshi government has repeatedly pledged to improve living conditions for the country’s Rohingya refugees. Despite also promising to move the refugees away from Cox’s Bazar to a “better area”, the government has yet to put any concrete proposals on the table.

Post written by France 24 journalist Corentin Bainier.