Myanmar Muslims stay put despite Bangladesh misery

Other News Materials 3 August 2008 04:31 (UTC +04:00)

Shansida Begum finally has a home with four relatively sturdy walls and a roof to keep out southern Bangladesh's heavy monsoon rains, the AFP reported.

The bamboo hut is nothing fancy, but it's a world of comfort compared to the flimsy makeshift shelter she and her family have called home for the past 10 years.

One of about 12,000 Burmese Muslims living in an unofficial camp in southern Bangladesh, Shansida says she barely remembers life in the country of her birth.

Her family, ethnic Rohingyas, fled Rakhine state across the border in the country formerly known as Burma when she was 12 years old to escape persecution by the military junta, which is accused of severely restricting Muslims' rights to travel and marry, and subjecting many to slave labour.

Now 22, Shansida says she still considers herself Burmese, but knows that unless the political situation changes in Myanmar, her 18-month-old daughter will only see her country from the Bangladeshi side of the Naf river which divides the two nations.

"We're Burmese but we live here. We have no food and water here but it's still better than how we are treated in Burma," she told AFP.

In the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. Since then, more than 230,000 have been repatriated, with almost 28,000 living in two official refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, where the United Nations provides medical care.

But the UN cannot help people like Shansida as the Bangladeshi government has not granted refugee status to any Rohingyas since 1992.

The world body estimates up to 300,000 Rohingas live in southern Bangladesh, many of them blending in with the local community.

Until the move to the new unofficial site which was funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), the stateless Rohingyas who make up Shansida's community lived along a narrow stretch of mud flats between a busy main road and the Naf.

That land was prone to flooding, and water-borne diseases were a part of life. Road accidents, some fatal, were frequent.

Pia Prytz Phiri, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Bangladesh, said ECHO's willingness to fund the structures at the new site helped convince the government to allow the residents to move there.

Although technically not permitted to work in Bangladesh, many residents work as day labourers, undercutting locals by accepting low wages. Others collect and sell firewood, others simply beg, and about 150 women are believed to work as prostitutes.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has been working with the group since April 2006 to provide healthcare.

MSF project coordinator Salah Ibrahim Dongu'du said that while the new huts were a vast improvement on previous living conditions, he was not optimistic they would bring much change.

"It doesn't mean the end of the problem. There will still be problems," he said. "Most of the children are malnourished. They have no land to cultivate and legally they are not allowed to work so it makes it difficult for them."

As one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh insists the Rohingyas return to Myanmar and is reluctant to grant them refugee status.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the camp in May and suggested "voluntary repatriation" to Myanmar was the best solution for the undocumented Rohingyas.

But Dongu'du is sceptical.

"They don't want to go back to Burma even though they are not enjoying their living conditions in Bangladesh," he said.

A Rohingya elder, Suriyaya Begam said returning to Myanmar would make life worse for her people.

"We were tortured in Burma. Our mosque was attacked. We had no security for our lives. We are better off here," the 35-year-old mother of four said.

"We are suffering in both places but the suffering is different on that side (of the border). We lived in fear of the military, but in Bangladesh the suffering is different. Food and shelter is the problem.

"Life is bad for us here, but at least we can get married, we can move here and there. We don't want to go back to Burma. We can't go back."