Menara Begum hasn’t seen her husband since he was hauled off to prison by Burma's border guard force some 18 years ago. She now lives in the unofficial Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where her children play alongside those of her brother, who has been jailed in Bangladesh.
Both men were taken into custody because they were outsiders, ‘nowhere people,’ as a disgruntled aid worker says of the Rohingya. They are, he says, caught up in a ‘protracted emergency…that has existed for 20 years.’
Salim Ullah, an activist with the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), says the fact that neither men are considered citizens of Burma highlights the main problem facing the Rohingya, a problem central to making them what US-based Refugees International (RI) describes as ‘one of the most persecuted groups in the world.’
Menara's brother is in jail because he attempted to get work outside the camp as a rickshaw puller. He is just one of the many who are detained for trying to eke out a living in the camp. The Bangladeshi government doesn’t allow the hundreds of thousands of unregistered Rohingya to work legally or to gain recognition as a refugee by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The government also prevents international donors from providing more than a single clinic near the camp. Camp teacher Rakib, for example, says the treatment available is inadequate, adding that refugees are regularly given a single paracetamol, regardless of how serious their condition is.
Bangladesh recently effectively nixed a joint UN initiative that would have been worth about $33 million in aid to locals and refugees in what is described as one of the poorest districts in already deprived and overcrowded Bangladesh.
Why? The Bangladeshi government, it seems, is keen to avoid creating a 'pull factor' from the ancestral home of the Rohingya, in Burma’s northern Arakan state. This means that despite years of military rule in Burma, and what critics say is officially sanctioned discrimination against the Rohingya, the Bangladeshi government only allows UNHCR to support and register 28,000 refugees in camps, despite there being as many as half a million in the country.
Fatima, who also left Burma 18 years ago, explains why she fled a place that the Rohingya have claimed as their homeland for almost a 1,000 years.
She says Burma’s border guard force came to her house near Maung Daw, in northern Arakan, and demanded to know who the 8-month-old boy was who was living with her. Fatima says she told them that the boy was her son, but because she didn’t have the correct paperwork to authenticate her marriage, the force seized her son and set him alight before torching her house and nearly all her property.
Fatima’s claims chime with other stories from those who have fled what Refugees International describes as the ‘violent Burmese military campaigns (that) have been waged against the Rohingya, leading to mass influxes into eastern Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991-1992.’
‘They want our land but not our people,’ Salim says of the Burmese border guards.
According to Tin Soe, editor of the Rohingya news service Kaladan Press Network, the situation for Rohingya women and girls in Bangladesh is particularly bad, with many harassed or even raped when they run errands such as collecting firewood.
But it isn’t only women who find themselves harassed by the authorities. Ahmed, a former farmer turned camp shopkeeper, says the authorities would only allow him to marry his partner if the couple paid a hefty bribe – and if she would accept a birth control implant.
Aung, a member of the Rohingya's ethnic nemeses in Arakan, the Rakhine, alleges that such repression in part stems from the unchanged traditional Rohingya practice of adolescent marriage and polygamy. He says that a family will usually seek to marry a girl off as soon as she reaches puberty, a practice that is illegal in Bangladesh.
Last November, then-Burmese Prime Minister and now President Gen. Thein Sein visited Buthidaung, the second city in Arakan state (now known as Rakhine state). While there, he appealed for the support of the Rohingya in upcoming elections, promising them the rights they crave and a pink card that would signify citizenship. Many Rohingya were signed up as ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party voters, a move all the odder as they lack the full citizenship rights of Burmese.
But the junta’s move, although only adding to suspicions among outside observers of vote irregularities, was a shrewd political move based on a deep appreciation of regional history. After all, the USDP's biggest electoral challenger in the region was the Rakhine National Development Party, seen as representing anti-Rohingya voters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, despite the junta’s promises, there’s been no sign any improvement in conditions in Arakan. Instead, along the ‘zero line’ as Bangladeshi border guards call the shared border, many are still trying to flee Burma.
Along the 300-kilometre electrified fence separating the two countries (a region where few residents on either side actually have electricity in their homes), Hamid, a Rohingya, has managed to cross the border. He says he is seeking treatment in Bangladesh, but he has been stopped by a Bangladeshi border guard who places a hand firmly on his shoulder.
The guard seems in a jovial mood. ‘We’ll just push him back,’ he says of Hamid, smiling.
Joseph Allchin is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent and the Democratic Voice of Burma, among other publications.