Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh: Stuck with nowhere to go

Having fled persecution in Myanmar and lived in appalling conditions for many years in Bangladesh, hundreds of refugee families are now requested by the Bangladeshi authorities to evacuate and leave without being provided with an alternative place to go.

This is the situation facing hundreds of families based in a makeshift camp near Teknaf since Wednesday, March 7. "Tal" camp, as it is commonly referred to, consists of small, ramshackle shelters situated in an area between the river Naf and the highway leading to the city of Cox's Bazaar. More than 6,000 men, women and children have sought refuge on a stretch of land 800 meters long and 30 meters wide, where food and potable water is scarce and access to health care limited.

The Muslim refugees, who are ethnically referred to as "Rohingya", have been fleeing Myanmar's northern Rakhine State for many years where, they say, they were subject to severe abuses such as forced labour, restrictions on movement and land confiscation. For many years they have lived in extremely vulnerable conditions, stateless within their own country and denied refugee status in Bangladesh.

"Going back is like drowning in the sea," says a woman from Tal camp. "We had lots of sufferings there (Myanmar). If we ate once, we couldn't eat the next seven times."

In April 2006, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) carried out an assessment and found worrying health indicators among the makeshift camp population as a result of the squalid living conditions: shelters are built extremely close together leaving no room for gardens to grow crops; during the rainy season 79 per cent of the shelters are flooded and during the rest of the year 10 per cent of the shelters are affected by water that comes in at high tide.

These conditions cause diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malnutrition, among other health consequences. Soon after, MSF opened a clinic and a therapeutic feeding centre (TFC) near the makeshift camp. Both facilities are open to everyone in the camp, as well as those living in the surrounding area. However, malnutrition and disease disproportionately affect the people living in the camp. Over 100 consultations are done on a daily basis, while the TFC feeds an average of more than 40 children a day.

In an effort to clear roadsides nationwide, the government of Bangladesh is demanding that part of the makeshift camp, located next to the main road, be cleared as well. Moreover authorities are making certain families that do not appear on their residents' list leave as well.

After being displaced, forcefully re-located or having sought refuge for the better part of the last 15 years, a significant number of the camp's occupants will have to move again.

"While it is still unclear what is going to happen to the people that are being driven out of Tal camp," said Frido Herinckx, Head of Mission for MSF, "it is time for the Bangladeshi authorities to work together with members of the international community to deal with a problem that has already been there for 15 years and is not going to disappear just by sending people away. Alternatives have to be offered or negotiated; they have to go somewhere. Nobody should be allowed to live like this."

If no durable solutions are found to improve their living conditions and access to services, thousands of Rohingya people are likely to continue to be exposed to disease and malnutrition, after having suffered displacement, exploitation and abuse throughout their lives, both in Bangladesh and Myanmar.