Rohingya lives lost in limbo

Unwanted in Myanmar, many seek refuge in one of impoverished Bangladesh’s most-deprived regions.

Huddled in a dark makeshift tent made of mud and plastic sheets, I tried to speak to to Kamal Hussain. 

We can understand each other, my Bengali and his Rohingya dialect are close enough, but it took time get the conversation going.  His silence speaks louder than words.

Water was pouring through the plastic soaking the small mud house. Shaking, a young 14-year-old girl broke the silence with one word: “rape”.

Hussain broke down in tears. He said men in military and police uniform are going house to house to beat and arrest young men. His two young teenage sons were abducted. He fled across the small riverway that separate Myanmar from Bangladesh. I saw in his eyes the whole world sink into sorrow.

I asked why they are after him. He took my hand and put it next to his. He looked at them and said: “Because of the colour of my skin. It is dark like yours. In Myanmar, you and I are considered impure.”

One Myanmar official once described the Rohingya as “ugly as ogres”. It’s not just their complexion that bothers Myanmar authorities. It is also their religion. Hussain believes they are a target because they are Muslim in a Buddhist-majority country. 

They can have a maximum of two children, but  are not allowed to own land, marry or join the army. Hussain had placed strong hopes on the return of Aung Sung Suu Kyi to parliament. She remains uncomfortably quiet, however, on the plight of the Rohingya community.

The UN has described the Rohingya as the most-persecuted minority in the world. Their only way out of the country is through Bangladesh.  As the violence continue in Myanmar, refugees continue to pour into Bangladesh. But the government in Dhaka has said the Rohingya are not their problem.

Only 29, 000 Rohingya are recognised as refugees by Bangladesh’s government and the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. In the eyes of Bangladeshi authorities, Hussain and the 300, 000 others do not exist, so they do not receive any UN aid.

A handful of aid agencies work with them, but none of these groups want to be filmed or named. They say if we film these camps, the Bangladeshi authorities could shut down their aid programmes.

In the camps there is no electricity, food or drinking water. The Rohingya are not allowed to have their own schools  and they can’t work. 

Officially, they are not allowed to leave the camps, but many do. Finding work is difficult, and the border area is one of the most-deprived regions of one of the poorest countries in the world.

Bangladesh has refused $33m in UN aid money for the Rohingya and the local Bangladeshi community in the area, saying that this would make life too comfortable and may risk attracting more refugees to Bangladesh.  

Hussain doesn’t even want to stay here. Life in Bangladesh isn’t much better than Myanmar. All he wants is to find peace.

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