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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
closes the door on aid coming into the country, lack of options for
the Rohingya women to receive maternal healthcare is now reaching crisis
Marriage rights too
have been an issue for many women and girls, but not in Bangladesh.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
these Rohingya mothers and children survive within the camp by taking
refuge in the only thing they have left, each other. - Women News Network
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).
and research for this story has been supplied by Women News Network
The Burmese refugees
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
Resurgence No. 249, May 2011, pp 37-38