Stateless refugee mothers fall through the cracks in Bangladesh

With no prospect of being allowed to return home or being granted asylum in Bangladesh, undocumented Burmese Rohingya mothers in refugee camps survive by taking refuge in the only thing they have left, each other.

Misha Hussain

MOTHERING in the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp in the southwest of Bangladesh is about as tough as it gets. Those who live in the camp experience each day what it means to be undocumented and 'meaningless'. Without the right to work, to carry money, or to receive humanitarian aid, these ethnic Burmese Rohingya women and children bear the brunt of the international community's unwillingness to tackle a 20-year-old issue. Some mothers are as young as the age of 16. Many suffer, along with their children, from acute malnutrition, hunger and starvation. Many have little access to education or healthcare.

Undocumented Burmese Rohingya refugees are in a growing state of crisis in Bangladesh as authorities prevent international aid measures to help them. Relief agencies such as MSF - Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Physicians for Human Rights are now facing their lowest ebb in cooperation from Bangladesh government authorities as they attempt to bring medical and food aid into Kutupalong camp. Another aid organisation, Islamic Relief Worldwide, has recently pulled out due to the inability to receive required permits to assist those in need inside the camp.

As aid programmes and programme funding to help the Rohingya are now being discontinued by the Bangladesh government, Burmese refugee mothers are falling through the cracks.

'Bangladesh has increased restrictions on aid agencies working with the refugees,' says a recent Refugees International report. As Medecins Sans Frontieres faces one wall after another with on-the-ground outreach inside Bangladesh, the continuation of the few medical programmes left for Rohingya women is under threat.

At the very bottom of Rohingya society are the women and girls who live unprotected lives as stateless unrecognised members of Bangladesh society. Deprived of many human rights including the right to work, as well as the rights of citizenship, in both Bangladesh and their original home on the other side of the border with Burma, they struggle to keep their lives intact. The original home for the ethnic Rohingya in Burma dates as far back as the 7th century AD.

While Rohingyas are not officially recognised in Bangladesh as refugees, legal recognition for them is vital to their survival and their ability to gain, and keep, asylum. Even the ethnic identity of the Rohingyas has been questioned in Burma, as well as neighbouring Bangladesh.

Life is far from easy. In the Kutupalong makeshift camp, Rohingya women are forced to accept lives that continue to harshly limit them. Today they live in degradation as they receive little to no access to employment, education, proper or safe shelter, maternal health services or protection from personal violence.

As Bangladesh closes the door on aid coming into the country, lack of options for the Rohingya women to receive maternal healthcare is now reaching crisis levels.

Marriage rights too have been an issue for many women and girls, but not in Bangladesh. In Burma permission for girls over the age of 18 to marry is not granted without payment of a prohibitively high fee; a fee that most Rohingya families could never pay. Because of this, some families have relocated to Bangladesh to enable their daughters to marry more easily.

But even with permission, marriages in situations of severe poverty often meet with roadblocks. Numerous women are left alone to care for their children as husbands leave the makeshift camp to find work elsewhere for weeks or months at a time.

'[Rohingyas] are the only ethnic group in Burma restricted from marriage, travelling beyond their village or building or maintaining religious structures,' says international advocacy and assistance organisation, Refugees International. 'In addition, they are subject to frequent forced labour, arbitrary taxation, sexual violence and land confiscations by the NaSaKa [Burma military forces].'

When husbands leave for work in neighbouring regions, women as heads of household are forced to get their family's food rations, as well as search for clean potable water along with wood for cooking and heating their homes. Dangers for women who often walk hours to gather basic necessities cause an ongoing, and serious, safety dilemma. Cases of rape are not uncommon.

Concerns at public community toilets in the camp are also a real safety issue as less than one toilet is available to women per 10 families at Kutupalong. When rape does happen, women have no access to making police reports or to medical help.

Protection for women and girls against domestic violence and sexual assault too is literally non-existent inside the camp.

After what many now claim was an attempt at ethnic cleansing in 1991-92, over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh from Burma following reports of widespread torture, deaths and atrocities.

But the numbers of those who migrated are not reliable. The current population of Rohingya living inside Bangladesh may number over twice the reported figures. Under-reporting and lack of accurate statistics have contributed to a trend of deteriorating conditions for those in the makeshift camps.

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR's 1997 statistics, 27,400 refugees were living in two makeshift camps: the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border. Ten years following the UNHCR data release, the 2007 Bangladesh government figures showed a lower number of 26,000 for both camps.

Current Bangladesh government policies of ignoring stateless members, and their growing numbers, match persistent and growing problems inside the camps, where ignoring needs is part of a targeted effort to get minority migrants to permanently leave the region.

In Bangladesh, people give many reasons for excluding the Rohingya minority, including their ancient language, a language which has only been officially recognised since 2007 as 'one of the world's unique languages.' As Muslims, their brand of ethnic Sunni faith is also seen as a religious dividing line between themselves and others.

Because Burmese Rohingya refugees are considered to be undocumented 'illegal' immigrants, the women and girls are facing many of the same problems and situations of humiliation they faced in Burma. Exploitation is common. Women, and their families, who live in extreme poverty are in constant danger of being tricked by human traffickers in labour bondage or sex-trafficking schemes.

Disease and crisis conditions with diarrhoea and amoebic dysentery, often followed by severe dehydration, are found throughout the Kutupalong camp, with mothers trying to protect their children from camp-based water. Sewage management does not exist and the water teems with microbial pollutants from faeces.

With low access to even the most simple oral rehydration formula commonly used in Bangladesh, which includes water, salt and sugar, many Rohingya refugee  mothers are forced to watch helplessly as their children's health deteriorates due to contaminated water.

Sanitation during childbirth is also an issue. Expectant mothers run unnecessary and high risks during childbirth due to lack of medical support offered in cases of complicated deliveries. While Bangladesh has recorded a remarkable 40% decrease in maternal mortality over the past nine years, many minority migrant women living in the makeshift camps have not been taken into account in the figures.

With neither prospect of asylum in Bangladesh nor hope of returning to their native Arakan State in Burma, these Rohingya  mothers  and  children survive within the camp by taking refuge in the only thing they have left, each other. - Women News Network                                                            

Humanitarian news reporter Misha Hussain currently covers South Asia for the United Nations news wire IRIN. Misha's writing/filming credits include: the BBC, the Guardian, Time, Scotland on Sunday, the New Statesman and, in South Asia, Prothom Alo (Bangladesh) and Dawn (Pakistan).

    Additional material and research for this story has been supplied by Women News Network - WNN.

Boxed article

The Burmese refugees in Bangladesh

    Some 250,000 Burmese refugees live in Bangladesh, of whom just 28,000 come under the protection of UNHCR. The others live hidden in villages or within large communities in makeshift camps. The Kutupalong makeshift camp has 20,000 refugees.

    An estimated 44% of households are headed by women.

    The global acute malnutrition rate in the Kutupalong makeshift camp is 30%, double the emergency threshold and 10% higher than in Somalia.

    A $33 million United Nations joint initiative to regenerate the area where the refugees live was rejected by the Bangladesh government in April. - WNN

*Third World Resurgence No. 249, May 2011, pp 37-38