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