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.

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