Myanmar refugees face grim future in Bangladesh

In this Sunday, March 7, 2010 photo, refugee woman Sano Ara, 30, sits with her mother, left, and her children at an unregistered refugees camp, outside the official camp at Kutupalong, run by Bangladesh government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, near Cox's Bazar, a southern coastal district about 183 miles (296 kilometers) south of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Rohingya ethnic group have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in neighboring Myanmar only find themselves trapped in a hellish international limbo. As Muslims, they were unwanted in Buddhist Myanmar. As foreigners, they are unwanted in Muslim Bangladesh.
                                     (AP Photo/Pavel Rahman)
KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh – Dildar Begum has no country, no job, no food and is fast running out of hope.
Her husband is imprisoned in a Bangladeshi jail while she lives in a slum with her five children, reduced to begging for rice from her impoverished neighbors. Her family is starving, she said.
"I can't live this way. It's better if my kids and I die suddenly," the 25-year-old woman said.
Begum is one of the hundreds of thousands of members of the Rohingya ethnic group who have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in neighboring Myanmar — only to find themselves languishing in filthy slums or open-air camps where food and water are scarce and medical care nonexistent.
As Muslims, they were unwanted in Buddhist Myanmar. As foreigners, they are unwanted in Muslim Bangladesh.
In recent months, Bangladesh has cracked down on the group, arresting and repatriating many and stepping up security along the porous border to prevent more from arriving. At the same time, the government discouraged aid groups from giving most of those here food, fearing it would attract a huge new influx of refugees, a government official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
International rights groups have decried their fate and Bangladesh's refusal to grant the vast majority of them refugee status, which would give them access to nearby camps where they could receive a full aid package of food, shelter and education provided by international agencies.
Without that aid, the Rohingya face widespread starvation, activists said.
"A grave humanitarian crisis is looming," Chris Lewa of the Rohingya advocacy group The Arakan Project said last month.
Bangladesh has also been accused of carrying out arbitrary arrests of the Rohingya and forcing many back into Myanmar.
In Kutupalong, 185 miles (296 kilometers) south of the capital, Dhaka, the undocumented Rohingya live in a squalid shantytown, where malnourished, barefoot children defecate outside.
With no right to work, many survive by bribing forestry officials to turn the other way as they illegally cut down trees to sell as firewood, men in the village said.
"The forest is being destroyed by them," said A.F.M. Fazle Rabbi, a government official in charge of the area. "I am sure over next few years, you will find no trees here."
The 800,000 strong Rohingya are believed to have descended from seventh century Arab settlers whose state along what is now the Bangladesh-Myanmar border was conquered by the Burmese in 1784.
The Myanmar junta refuses to recognize them as citizens, and the group faces extortion, land confiscation, forced evictions, and restricted access to medical care and food, according to Human Rights Watch.
Thousands have fled to Malaysia and Thailand, which depend on migrant labor, or braved the sea to go as far as the Middle East for work.
Last year, the Thai navy intercepted boats carrying 1,000 Rohingya, detained and beat them and then forced them back to sea in vessels with no engines and little food or water, according to reports from human rights groups.
On Friday, Malaysian authorities said they picked up 93 Rohingya who said they had been at sea for 30 days in a crowded wooden boat after apparently being chased out of Thai waters.
"They said they were sailing aimlessly in the hope of finding a country that will accept them," said Zainuddin Mohamad Suki, an officer with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. The passengers were likely to be sent to a detention center, he said.
Most of the refugees, however, have fled on foot and by boat over the border to the nearby Cox's Bazar area in Bangladesh, where 28,000 are registered as refugees and restricted to official camps in Kutupalong and Naya Para.
The Kutupalong refugee camp is well-equipped with medical facilities, a computer learning center, volleyball courts and generators.
However, at least 200,000 other Rohingya here have not been given refugee status by Bangladesh and live under constant threat of being arrested or sent back home. Some work as day laborers or rickshaw pullers at Cox's Bazar.
Authorities fear that if they grant full rights to everyone, it will encourage even more Rohingya to come to Bangladesh, which is already overwhelmed with its own impoverished and malnourished population.
"We are a poor country, we cannot afford this for long," said Gias Uddin Ahmed, the chief administrator of the district.
Begum and her family fled with about 2,500 others seven months ago amid unrelenting attacks by their Buddhist neighbors, who eventually took their land in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine state. They left at night and bribed Bangladeshi border guards to let them enter and travel to the shantytown near the refugee camp in Kutupalong.
Her husband, 35-year-old Jamir Hossain, found work as a day laborer in the shantytowns that have sprung up near the Kutupalong camp, but police arrested him last month in a roundup of undocumented Rohingya.
With no money, Begum begs for rice from nearby villages to feed her four sons and a daughter.
"It's now afternoon, but I haven't been able to give any food to my kids," she said.
M. Sakhawat Hossain, the police chief in Cox's Bazar, said Bangladeshi villagers have accused the Rohingya of a wave of robberies across the coastal region and pressured the government to take action.
In the ensuing crackdown, 136 undocumented Rohingya were in custody on charges of illegally entering Bangladesh or engaging in criminal activities, he said.
"What we did is for maintaining law and order over reported crimes," he said. "Should not we do that?"

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