For over half a century the Rohingya, the Muslim minority population in Myanmar, has fled the severe repression and persecution they face in their homeland to seek refuge in Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries. Few find the assistance they desperately require and instead are forced to survive in huge, makeshift camps with little or no basic amenities such as food or water.
Now, increasing violence and intimidation are forcing the Rohingya to flee once again. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports on the appalling living conditions and maltreatment refugees are enduring at the hands of local authorities in Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.
She returned from her work at the usual time but, on this occasion, Laila could not believe what she saw. Ever since she had moved to the Kutupalong makeshift camp seven years before, life had been difficult, the surroundings filthy and the help little to nonexistent. But now she had lost her shelter and the small things that made up her home lay totally destroyed.
“Why?” she asked the authoritative figure, standing among the group. In response he brandished a knife and threatened to cut her if she complained any further.
Laila is just one of 25,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees who have sought a safe place to live on the outskirts of the state endorsed, United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) supported refugee camp. Unlike their approximately 10,000 registered counterparts, the unregistered refugees in the makeshift camp struggle to survive day to day, living in squalid conditions, vulnerable to ill health and exploitation.
“It’s some of the worst poverty I’ve ever seen,” said Gemma Davies, MSF Project Coordinator in Kutupalong makeshift camp. “People are living in makeshift shelters built out of bits of plastic and wood or whatever they can find. They don’t even have basic things to cook with. And the sanitation is appalling.”
In the last weeks, the situation has spiraled out of control, according to the MSF team members who have recently set up an emergency health intervention in the camp.
“This highly vulnerable population is facing imminent expulsion by the local authorities who are using unacceptable methods to uproot them from their homes,” continued Davies. “We hear people were dragged out of their shelters if they refused to move. There was one four-year-old girl who arrived at our clinic with knife injuries and another five-day-old baby that had been thrown onto the ground. It is totally unacceptable.”
Even as the inhabitants of the UNHCR supported refugee camp at Kutupalang celebrated International Refugee Day on June 20, MSF was informed by unregistered refugees living outside the camp that they had, once again, been told by the local authorities to leave. The order followed days of forced displacement, as people were ousted from land surrounding the UNHCR camp and then again off the adjacent Government Forestry land.
The MSF clinic at the makeshift camp, originally intended to deliver basic health care to children under-5 years and to treat the high levels of global acute malnutrition in the camp, has become a haven for those exhausted by what is happening.
“They come to us for solutions which we can’t offer them,” said Davies. The team of MSF medics and Bangladeshi staff feel totally helpless in a situation that is swiftly becoming out of control. “One day, we had more than 50 people turn up to our clinic, saying that they had nowhere to go. They didn’t know what to do. They’d been moved three times in the last week. And we can’t do anything to change their situation. They’re tired. People are threatening suicide now.”
Desperation, and a feeling of resignation, are mounting among the refugees.
“If I’m told to move again, they can kill us, they can run us over, they can poison us, but I’m not going to move again,” said one woman living in Kutupalang camp. “If I go to get wood, I’ll get arrested. If I collect water I’ll get beaten. If we move our houses, we’ve got nowhere to go.”
Amid the unrest, MSF continues to offer medical care to those in need of assistance, both camp residents and the host community alike.
“Our clinic is still very basic and it’s really just for under-five-year-olds. But given the recent events, people of all ages who have suffered violence have been coming to our clinic,” explained Davies. “Fortunately, the 27 people who came the other day mostly had minor injuries. So at least we can treat their wounds and offer clinical support.
“We don’t have the solution for these people. It’s frustrating, but what we can do is provide whatever medical support we can, be there with them and bear witness to what’s happening.”
MSF has assisted people in Bangladesh since 1992, most recently setting up a basic healthcare program in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, assisting victims of Cyclone Aila and implementing an emergency intervention to assist unregistered Rohingya in Kutupalong makeshift camp - with services also open to the host community.