Refugee Crisis

Escape from terror

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Every morning hundreds of refugees arrive in Shahpori island at the confluence of the Naf river and the Bay of Bengal. United Nations officials have identified the Rohingya influx as the "fastest-growing" refugee crisis in the world in 2017.

At Shahpori island, in the south-east of Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees carrying a patient. More than 600,000 refugees have arrived since August 25.

After entering the mainland of Bangladesh, many refugees are found stranded on roads. Sabera Bibi, 35, found accommodation after waiting for three days by the roadside.

Refugees carrying bamboo poles to start a new home. Md. Arshad, 30, says he has changed his home six times, five times in Myanmar. "Every time I set up a house, it was looted or set on fire. Once I came to Bangladesh but was sent back to Myanmar. This is the sixth time I am setting up a house. But this too is a temporary one," he says.

The living conditions in the new camps are abysmal. The camps are set up on the steps of hills inside forests that have been cleared. The camp dwellers must walk through ankle-deep slush to reach their quarters.

The size of the camps keeps growing.

The refugees carry all their belongings in two or three large-sized bags. They pay between $30 and $80 in Myanmar currency for each person, other than children below 10, to the boatman to cross the river. Often the money is arranged by their relatives from Bangladesh or by international support groups. This family paid 50,000 Myanmar kyat (about $37) to cross the river. The young girl, behind her father, Nur Kaida, paid 25,000 kyat (about $19).

Sitara, 27, in Kutupalang camp showing her family photograph. Half of her family members have been either killed, raped or have disappeared.

Each family in the camp produced a whole lot of identity cards given to them by the Myanmar government. The Rohingyas refused to accept the one which identified them as Bengalis and not as Rohingya. This family, which came during an earlier influx, shows various identity cards, with no defined nationality. Its members indicated that their parents were Myanmarese nationals in the 1950s. But the Emergency Immigration Act and the National Registration Certificate diluted their citizenship.

Ismat Ara (right), from Sein Dee Pran at Buthidaung in north-west Myanmar, said her thatched house was destroyed by a missile fired by a rocket launcher. Her 13-year-old daughter died when the hut caught fire. Rehana Begum (left) "lost touch" with five of her daughters. Another daughter was born and died in the Naik-Kon Dia beach in Myanmar, while she was waiting to reach Bangladesh.

Rezwan, 11, carrying a bag of rice. He walks up and down several times between his house in the Thangkhali camp and one of the food distribution points. More than 50 per cent of the Rohingya refugees are children.

The World Food Programme and Medecins Sans Frontieres play a significant role in addressing the crisis, observers said.

A section of Bangladesh civil society said that it expected India to play a more "friendly role". Professor Imtiaz Ahmed of the University of Bangladesh said the Indian Prime Minister missed an opportunity to emerge as a world leader.

The other points of entry to Bangladesh from Myanmar are the openings on the land border. Many thousands are waiting in Tamru land border in Bandarban district, adjacent to Cox’s Bazar. They are in the no man's land between Bangladesh and Myanmar waiting for the administration's nod to enter the country. An official of Border Guards Bangladesh posted in the area said that food access was not restricted. "They are also allowed in small numbers every day to enter Bangladesh," he said. Myanmar has put up a barbed wire fence.

Gholapara in Shahpori island, where boats carrying refugees from Myanmar land. An outpost of Border Guards Bangladesh on the edge of the Naf river was created to stop the boats from anchoring.

The boats, shaped a bit like the letter "C", are used to ferry Rohingya Muslims from mainly north-west Myanmar to Shahpori island.

“IF this isn’t genocide, what is?” asks Aaron Jackson, an American doctor with Planting Peace, a non-profit organisation. He is not a novice at disaster relief. He was in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010. But what he witnessed in the past two months around the villages south of Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh is something that he “hasn’t come across in such a big scale”. He is talking about his experience as a doctor among the Rohingya refugees who are crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh; more than 600,000 of them are now packed into shanty-like refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Whoever has visited the Rohingya refugee settlements—health professionals, diplomats, journalists and aid agency workers—is alarmed by the scale and depth of the tragedy. Every refugee has a story that borders on the absurd, “implausible even”, says Jackson.

But after a thorough and rigorous documentation to ascertain the truth, what emerges is a horrific collage of testimonies that are “implausible” but true.

Eight-year-old Md. Taiyub unties his lungi with little hesitation. He has done that many times in the past month, he says. The penis was swollen, with a yellow bulb formed around it. Taiyub says members of the Myanmar junta hit him with a sharp object. “It pains a lot to relieve myself,” he says.

Shahjan Begum, a 50-year-old mother with eight children, is housed in the same temporary settlement camp as Taiyub in Thangkhali, south of Cox’s Bazar town. In early September, “days before Bakrid”, her house in Rathedaung near Myanmar’s coastline was brought down.

“The house was set on fire using guns that throw fire from a distance,” she said. Bangladesh’s Army officials confirmed that rocket launchers were used to bring down Rohingya houses with roofs made of bamboo and plastic in three coastal areas—Maungdaw, Rathedaung and Buthidaung. “Two of my sons who were sleeping in the room died; the rest of us ran out of the room,” she said. What she failed to mention was that she got burnt severely. As proof of her ordeal, Shahjan Begum passed on a paper to this writer.

The surgery unit of “250-bed District Hospital [of] Cox’s Bazar” had certified that Shahjan Begum was “treated” in the hospital between September 12 and 23 for the “burn over whole body”. Singed and unconscious, she was carried by her neighbours for two weeks through forests and over hills to the Naik-Kon Dia beach in Maungdaw. “I was taken to the hospital. Doctors said that the burn has thankfully not gone deep,” she said. She lost touch with her husband.

Flies hovered over the right hand of Zubair, 33, from Ashika Para (Poung Zar in Myanmarese). His hand was covered with a ghamcha, a traditional red-and-white cotton towel. He removed the towel to show the chopped tops of his index finger and thumb. A metal strip was inserted to keep the fingers in place. “Lost my fingers to bullets,” he said. He lost his family and house to the Myanmar military’s attack.

Why the hatred?

The United Nations Human Rights Office claimed that “more than 600,000 have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, when Myanmarese forces began the so-called clearance operations”. Such attacks on Rohingyas have been going on for more than four decades, since 19781.

It, however, remained unclear as to what triggered so much of hatred against Rohingyas. There are many interpretations but none sounds convincing. Some historians say that Rohingyas sided with the British at the time of Myanmar’s (previously Burma) independence in 1948, when Myanmar joined Japan to oppose Britain. This, they say, triggered a misunderstanding about Rohingyas. Some say that the demand of a section of Rohingyas in 1947 for accession to East Pakistan is the key reason for their persecution. This angle is debated, too. Another section of observers do not see an anti-Muslim agenda behind the ethnic cleansing as “Muslim ethnicities both in [the State of] Rakhine and the rest of Burma were granted full citizenship”.2

Rohingyas were indeed considered an indigenous race in 1947 and had a representation in Parliament from 1948 to 1961. But the situation changed in 1974, when the National Registration Certificate was introduced. Rohingyas started “steadily losing their existing rights”3, and eventually their status as citizens was thoroughly diluted. In 1977, the Nagamin (Operation Dragon King) campaign was launched to identify “foreigners”. The first exodus took place in 1978 when “200,000 more Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh”.4

“Since then [1978], on five occasions refugees have arrived in Cox’s Bazar but never before in such large numbers” as now, said Nurul Islam, the Reuters correspondent in Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladesh shares a 271-kilometre border with Myanmar, of which 54 km is a riverine border on the extreme south-eastern edge of Bangladesh between the river Naf and the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh government identified 11 points on this border through which refugees entered Bangladesh. Unofficially, however, there are more entry points, and the country is expected to receive another 200,000 refugees over the winter, if the persecution does not stop. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted on the floor of Parliament on November 15 that more than one million Rohingyas were now staying in Bangladesh, including the 400,000 who had entered the country previously.

The latest round of exodus began after August 25 when a Rohingya retaliatory group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), “with knives and home-made bombs attacked more than 30 police posts in northern Rakhine, the government said”.5 A European diplomat tracking the developments in south-eastern Bangladesh, however, told this correspondent, on condition of anonymity, that it “seems improbable that a very small team of [ARSA] insurgents is powerful enough to mount attacks on more than 30 [police] camps”. Following the alleged attacks, the Myanmar Army launched an all-out attack on Rohingyas in the north-western areas of the country, killing “around thousand” Rohingyas, said Yanghee Lee, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar in early September. The attack resulted in the disappearance of 288 Rohingya villages, according to Human Rights Watch, while the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Life in camps

The impact of the “ethnic cleansing” was evident during a drive further south from the port city of Cox’s Bazar. Thousands of refugees were seen along the road connecting Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf, a sub-district, waiting for accommodation in one of the 12 refugee settlements. The members of families that had been allotted space to make their temporary homes were seen carrying bamboo poles, with their children following them. It takes three to four days after their arrival to get accommodation.

Waiting along the road to Cox’s Bazar was Sabera Bibi, 35, and her family of eight members who were allotted space. “We arrived three days ago from Buthidaung and have been living under this tree,” she said. In Myanmar, such families are routinely kept outside the government’s health care or family planning programmes, and almost every family ends up having many children. “At least they [the children] can help their fathers build the new house,” said Sabera.

The “new houses” made of bamboo slips, plastic sheets and mud, built on the steps of an undulating terrain carved out of the muddy hillocks, are hardly livable during the monsoon. Even a slight shower can give the area the look of a pigsty, with human waste floating in the drains between the makeshift shacks. The stench is unbearable and so is the sight. Half-naked or totally naked children drink from freshly installed tubewells that pump out yellowish water, which often leads to severe dysentery and death, mainly among children.

When asked about the condition of the children, Jackson pulled out a video from his colleague’s laptop. A child, two to three years of age, with a swollen belly and an open wound on the back of his head was lying on a plastic sheet in one of the many shacks on the steps of the hills. Jackson explained that his conversation with the child’s family revealed that the security forces had hit the boy with the butt of a rifle. What is “more worrying” is the presence of ringworm.

“All the children here are filled with worms—tapeworm, ringworm, hookworm. That is more dangerous than any other ailment as worms are silent killers. Twenty to 30 per cent of the food is consumed by the worms, leaving the child severely malnourished and underweight,” said Jackson.

Disappointment with India’s role

From the gloomy slums of Nayapara on the edge of the Bay of Bengal to the plush dining room of one of the oldest private clubs of the subcontinent, the Dhaka Club, the discussion was animated but centred mostly around the problem of the Rohingya influx. A powerful official in the Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment when asked about India’s role in the crisis. His friends said that the civil society in Dhaka was not particularly happy about India’s role in the Rohingya crisis.

“For the past 10 years, India has projected itself as a friend of Bangladesh and the relationship has developed, but when we are going through the worst crisis, Delhi has backed Myanmar, the key opponent of Bangladesh,” said a senior official of the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Office referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Myanmar visit in September 2017. There was no mention of the Rohingya influx in the joint statement issued during Modi’s visit. This clearly annoyed many in Cox’s Bazar and Dhaka.

Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations in the University of Dhaka, expressed his displeasure succinctly: “I would say, Prime Minister Modi missed an opportunity to emerge as a world leader. Unlike in the 1970s or the 1990s, world leaders have now accepted that Myanmar is resorting to ethnic cleansing, thanks to technology and awareness at various levels. What perhaps Delhi needed was to isolate [Myanmar’s] State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi from the military, but Mr Modi somehow missed the opportunity.”

There are many explanations floating in Dhaka as to why the two Asian giants, India and China, are going soft on Myanmar. While there are many arguments in favour of and against India’s and China’s position on the Rohingya crisis, the most plausible one came from experts such as Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a professor at the U.S. Army War College. In his 2016 book, in which he predicted a downright massacre of Rohingyas, Ibrahim connected “the [Rohingya] genocide” with the “discovery of large offshore gas and oil supplies” which has engaged “leading companies… from China, India, Australia and South Korea” and ensured “exploration licences from the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise”.6

With more reports, commentaries and analysis pouring in, the situation on the ground has not changed much as the influx completed three months on November 25. Thousands of videos, shot on mobile phones, and photographs, originating from Rakhine State, are a ghoulish reminder of the continuing violence in Myanmar. The refugees are hoping against hope, as Myanmar and Bangladesh formed a 30-member Joint Working Group in late December to evaluate a memorandum of understanding (MoU) they signed on November 23 at Nay Pyi Taw to repatriate Rohingya Muslims, whose numbers have crossed 650,000. India has signed an MoU with Myanmar to “build prefabricated housing in Rakhine State”.

However, identifying over half a million Rohingyas who arrived recently will take time. Whether a child like Taiyub or a sickly person like Shahjan Begum will survive the cold weather and return to their village in Myanmar after the identity verification is completed remains to be seen. The MoU suggested that Myanmar would take back the refugees who came after October 2016 after signing an agreement finalising the logistics over the next few months. However, one of the points in the document keeps Rohingyas and observers in Bangladesh on tenterhooks. It says that “the final decision regarding verification [of the identity]” of the refugees will be made by Myanmar. Moreover, given that such repatriation resulted in more tragedies for Rohingyas in 1993, very few are willing to leave Bangladesh. Hafiz Nazir Hussain, a 63-year-old refugee who can recite the Quran, says: “Going back is not an option [as] we would get the [namaz-e] janaza [the funeral prayer] here [Bangladesh], but thrown in the marshes there [Myanmar].”

The ethnic cleansing of the past four decades has so deeply divided neighbouring societies that it will be an uphill task for Bangladesh to send the refugees back to their own country.

Suvojit Bagchi is Chief of Bureau,

The Hindu, Kolkata.


1, 2, 3, 4. Ibrahim, Azeem (2016): “A short history of Burma to 1948” and “From Independence to Democracy (1948-2010)”, in The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, London: Hurst & Company.


world-asia-41082689 (On the web as on 16.11.2017).

6. Ibrahim, Azeem (2016): “From Independence to Democracy (1948-2010)”, in The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, London: Hurst & Company, p. 47.

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