They say they are caught between a crocodile and a snake. The Rohingya, amongst the most persecuted of Myanmar’s many persecuted peoples have for years, sought refuge in Bangladesh. A situation that can be portrayed as a drowning child grasping on to the neck of a starving and drowning adult. Or, if we’re sticking to their own original metaphor, the situation of the Rohingya is one where they are caught between a crocodile who will drown them and a snake who will suffocate them to death.
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for a millennium, but they’re called Muslim outsiders by the Burmese authorities and refused citizenship rights. So thousands of them fled and continue to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh which has its own not inconsiderable problems. The government response has been to officially ignore the problem, so most Rohingya refugees are denied the right to refugee status there despite the fact that there are now generations of ethnic Rohingya who were born on Bangladeshi soil and have known no other home. On several instances, Rohingya living in the camps near Cox Bazar have literally been pushed back into the river by locals and told to swim back where they came from.
According to the medical charity, Medicins Sans Frontieres, there are there are only about 28,000 Rohingya recognized as refugees by the Government of Bangladesh. But nearly ten times that number are living on the border of half life and half death around the squalid refugee camps.
Their plight has not gone unnoticed by the Western media as you can read here and here. But the Bangladesh government continues to deny there is a problem or that they are violating human rights in the worst way. By forcing refugees back to a land where they are sure to be persecuted, Bangladesh is in direct violation of a principle of international refugee law called non re-foulement.
Last year, a thousand refugees who decided to brave the longer route out via Thailand to Malaysia were caught by the Thai navy who removed the engines from their boats and left them to drift out to sea. A brutal answer to the question of whether they would take in more Burmese refugees than they already have along their northern borders.
The meetings continue, the discussions between government and NGO representatives in nice air-conditioned hotels about the future of the Rohingya, about who’s responsibility they ultimately are. But meanwhile, the medical charity Physicians for Human Rights has published a report today that says that in the unofficial camps, 18% of the children under 5 suffer from acute malnutrition - a number five times higher than that of post earthquake. Hear author of the report Richard Sollum interviewed by RNW here.