Myanmar boat people swap violence for desperation

GOLAR PARA, Bangladesh Sun Jun 17, 2012 12:54pm EDT

1 of 15. Rohingya women and children hide in a house in Teknaf June 17, 2012. The group of 7 Rohingya Muslims fled mass burning of houses and violence in Myanmar, setting out in a wooden boat for neighbouring Bangladesh. They were pushed back three times by border guards, but finally made it on their fourth attempt and are now hiding with local villagers to avoid being arrested.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Biraj

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GOLAR PARA, Bangladesh (Reuters) - At first, the boat bobbing in the water in the middle of the night appeared to be empty. But when Bangladeshi villagers took a closer look, they found a baby too weak to cry, a refugee from marauding mobs in Myanmar apparently abandoned by her family.

The cleft-lipped infant, just weeks old, is among hundreds of Rohingya Muslims who fled this month's sectarian violence in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, packing themselves into rough wooden boats and heading for the shores of neighboring Bangladesh.

No one knows how many made it ashore. Bangladesh has ordered its border guards to push the boats back, determined that - with at least quarter of a million "illegal migrants" already here - there must be no more.

The baby, named Fatima by the family that has taken her in, is out of the danger that she and her family faced in Myanmar, but she joins a throng of stateless people in southeast Bangladesh who - for the most part - lead desperate lives of squalor, deprivation and discrimination.

Among them is Mohammad Kamal, a young religious leader from Rakhine's Maungdaw district, where ferocious violence erupted on June 9 between Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and spread across the state. He escaped to Bangladesh in 2006 after his brother and others were jailed in a crackdown on Muslim clerics.

Kamal, now 28, settled in a makeshift "unregistered" camp, where - along with some 20,000 others - he is not recognized as a refugee and where even international aid agencies have to work under the radar because Bangladesh has not granted them legal status.

"I went out for a walk one day last year and was arrested because I had no documents," said Kamal, pulling up a trouser leg to show a line of angry sores that broke out during the following nine months he spent in jail.

Behind him, naked children play in a muddy pool and the rickety dwellings of an overcrowded shanty town - his camp - rise up, lashed by monsoon rains.

In 2010, the authorities forcibly evicted thousands from a makeshift camp. The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres recounted at the time that some Rohingyas had been thrown into the Naf River and told to swim the 3 km (2 miles) back to Myanmar, and the organization said it had treated many for beatings, machete wounds and even rape.


Craig Sanders, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Dhaka, said that although Bangladesh has disowned the Rohingyas - dubbing them illegal economic migrants - it has shown "tremendous generosity over many years".

Rohingyas first came in large numbers to the South Asian nation in 1973, and over the years gained a reputation for drug-smuggling, gun-running and human trafficking.

A sudden flood of more than quarter of a million arrived in 1991-92 after a spasm of repression by the security forces in military-ruled Myanmar. Those that remain from that wave, now numbering some 30,000, live in two official camps where the U.N. provides everything from shelter and water supply to healthcare and schooling.

But at least 200,000 others - probably many more - have settled on the Bangladesh side of the 200-km (125-mile) border, mingling with the population where they struggle to find employment or squeezing into unofficial camps.

It is these "unregistered" Rohingyas who are most vulnerable.

"It's an extremely desperate life for these people," said one worker for a humanitarian group that provides assistance illegally at one camp, asking not to be named. "They have been here for such a long time and there is no prospect of change."

UNHCR's Sanders has crossed swords with the government in recent days over its decision to turn back the boatloads of traumatized Rohingyas.

"Bangladesh, one more time, is being urged to step forward to deal with a situation that is not of their making," he said. "We are not trying to push them into a corner on this issue, but there is a question of fair and right treatment here."


There have been sketchy and conflicting reports of the communal violence that erupted in Rakhine, but scores are feared dead after widespread torching of houses by both sides.

Abdus Salam, one of 10 Rohingyas who reached Bangladesh and are now hiding in a coastal village to avoid arrest, told Reuters last week: "The Rakhine torched our houses, killed our relatives, assaulted our women. They were killing Muslims. When we protested, the government forces also shot our people dead. Then we started fleeing."

Muhammad Zamir, Dhaka's chief information commissioner, maintains that the authorities have treated the boat people humanely, providing those they turn away with water, medicines and fuel for the journey back, assisting a woman who gave birth on arrival and treating those with gunshot wounds in hospital.

"We want to help the refugees, they have rights," Zamir told Reuters in the coastal town of Cox's Bazar, a bumpy three-hour drive from the shores where Rohingyas are being pushed back.

"But we can only look after them to a point. We really can't handle any more."

He argues that, as a densely populated and poverty-plagued country of 150 million, Bangladesh has played its part. Now, as democracy stirs in Myanmar, it is time for its neighbor to address the root causes of the chronic exodus of Rohingyas, and for the international community to put pressure on it to do so.


There has been some dismay in this part of Bangladesh at the hard line taken by the government on the new arrivals. The populations share the same ethnicity, religion and dialect, and they are so close that if you call a Rohingya on a mobile phone in Myanmar it is likely to be a Bangladesh number.

Yet the plight of those already here gets little attention.

A report by U.S.-based rights group Refugees International last year described a "silent crisis" of abuse, starvation and detention faced by stateless Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

According to UNHCR, a 2011 survey in the two official camps found that 17 percent of children between six months and six years were suffering from acute malnutrition, higher than the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation. In the makeshift camps, malnutrition rates are even higher.

"It's a hopeless situation," said the aid worker. "You treat the children who are sick, and then they fall ill again because they are not getting the right food."

For now at least, tiny Fatima is safe. She has been taken in by a fisherman and his wife who already have four sons and two daughters. But an uncertain future awaits her, stateless in the land of her refuge.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Comments (7)
Sunsetinwest wrote:
You stated in this article “The populations (Bengali illegal immigrants in Myanmar/Burma with the so-called invented name Rohingyas) share the same ethnicity, religion and dialect, and they are so close that if you call a Rohingya on a mobile phone in Myanmar it is likely to be a Bangladesh number.”

Therefore, it is absolutely clear that these so-called Rohingyas are Bengali illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and therefore everyone and every government must accept and understand that the so-called Rohingyas are Bengalis from Bangladesh have been illegally living in or invading/occupying the lands of Myanmar/Burma. These facts have been well described by Burmese researchers and academics working at international universities and native Rakhine people, who witnessed these illegal immigrations over decades.

All illegal immigrants and even legal migrants must one day go back or be taken back to and accepted by the country of origin according to the international and Myanmar/Burmese national laws if the host country does not want them any longer; in this case all the Bengali (Rohingyas) illegal immigrants in Myanmar must go back to Bangladesh. Current and any future Bangladesh governments and Bangladesh must accept these Bengalis (Rohingyas) including the children born while they are there according to the international and Myanmar/Burmese law and practice whether it wants them back or not and whether the Bengalis (Rohingyas) want to go back to Bangladesh, their country of origin, or not because Myanmar/Burma people do not want them to remain on Myanmar/Burma’s lands/territory any longer.

Burma/Myanmar is also one of the poorest countries in the world and it does not have conditions, jobs, financial, health care, and educational resources to allow the Bengali immigrants to remain on its lands.

EVEN for its native indigenous Myanmar/Burmese people, Burma/Myanmar can only provide very poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary living conditions (without any clean water supply and sewage systems). Everyone in Myanmar/Burma can see and has seen shanty towns and districts (or pockets of unsanitary households even in good residential areas) in Yangon (Rangoon) and other cities/towns/villages all over in Myanmar/Burma, where millions of indigenous Myanmar / Burmese people have to live in very poor, dirty, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without any money to get access to clean water, health care and education. That is why millions of Burmese/Myanmar people have been illegally and legally working in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and China to have better living conditions despite being subjected to daily abuses and exploitations by many of the host-countries’ employers.

Likewise, current and future Myanmar governments will have to accept all returning Myanmar legal and illegal migrants and workers from Thailand or Malaysia including their children born there according to the international and Myanmar/Burma laws if Thailand or Malaysia does not want them any longer.

Jun 17, 2012 8:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
psittacid wrote:
The Buddha set out a way to abandon the suffering caused by greed, hatred and delusion. The Burmese Buddhists involved in the oppression of these Muslims have abandoned the Buddha. This is a sad mark on a faith which only speaks of doing the opposite.

Of all the peoples of the world, the Burmese should know the way out of this horror.

Jun 17, 2012 9:55am EDT  --  Report as abuse
psittacid wrote:
Sunsetinwest, what you say is only true if you have let the compass of your heart be set by laws made by others. I am well aware of the poverty of the people in Burma. Why should the Burmese people add hatred and division to that burden?

Jun 17, 2012 10:33am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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