Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rohingya Refugees: Vulnerable on the sea, not much better on land!

You probably have been reading about them these past few days or watching them on TV - the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar who were chased out of their homeland and now floating around the ocean on boats with no food, no water and nowhere to go. Hundreds of them have already died already while death stares at hundreds of others.

Truth is, hunger and misery are also constant companions of even those Rohingyas who live on the land. I met some of them in Hyderabad city of India. Sharing here some of the images that, several months later, still haunt me!

The Rohingya refugees arrived in India from Bangladesh. For some, it has been a few weeks, while some have been here since 2012. Each one of them has a horrific story to share: beaten, tortured, forced to leave home, watching their near ones being murdered and their homes being burned down.
The lucky ones survived with no loss of limbs, but others were crippled. Nuruddin, a man in his mid-twenties, was grabbed by a group of Burmese militia who cut off his hands and left him on the street to die.

The Rohingyas first arrived at Chittagong Hill district of Bangladesh. They were in a Muslim-majority country and they spoke a language that was also similar to the local dialect. They should have been safe and comfortable there. Why, then, did they leave and journeyed into the uncertainty again?  It is because they were unwanted there. These men in Hyderabad told me: "there were too many refugees already. We were cursed every day not just by the Bangladeshis but also our own people who had arrived before us.". 

Although their journey from Bangladesh to Hyderabad - via the state of West Bengal  - was relatively safer, some died on the way, mostly from bad health and exhaustion. Nur Muhammed, a refugee, showed me this photo of his son in law and two daughters (starting from left) who had died.

In Hyderabad, the entire Rohingya refugee community is living in a neighborhood called Babanagar. There are no refugee camps for them, so the community is forced to rent an "apartment" which is usually a dark, damp room, no bigger than a closet. In each room, 2-3 families are huddled together. Over 90% of them have already spent whatever little cash they managed to bring from home, on rent. Now, every man and woman is incredibly desperate for money and food - a fact that has made them very vulnerable to exploitation and slavery.

While the men are struggling to find a livelihood, women and children are bearing the brunt of the displacement in silence. Each of the women I met was visibly malnourished.

Many Rohingya women have tuberculosis and almost all the elderly women are suffering from some form of mental illness.  Nobody is seeing a doctor because of the obvious reason: no money!

Children are no better than their mothers. They looked underfed and sad. But the saddest thing to know is that these boys and girls were not at school and would probably never be because their parents were neither citizens, nor registered refugees.

There were about 1500 Rohingyas when I met them and about a hundred of them had either received a refugee status from the UNHCR - the UN Refugee agency, or were in the process of getting it. The problem is, most of them either have no papers whatsoever to prove they were citizens of Burma, or, no money to travel to New Delhi to attend the interview that would determine their eligibility for a refugee card.

But even those with a card are finding it difficult to make a living. Salim Ali, this man in the photo, is a registered Rohingya refugee, but he can only find occasional employment as a laborer at construction sites. Language is a barrier, he says. But a bigger problem is the utter lack of trust among locals. Local Human Rights organizations warn that the desperation may actually drive the youths to a life of crime - something they are already accused of . "People call us illegal Bangladeshi migrants. They treat us with suspicion. Some of us have been called terrorists," Salim Ali told me.

Most Rohingyas ask why the government can not open a refugee camp for them. "There are refugees from so many other countries and they are all treated with respect and sympathy. But nobody gives us Rohingyas a second look. Why is it so?" they ask. 

Is it not the same question refugees on those "floating coffins" asking?

1 comment:

MyanmarLoveand Tolerance said...

Appreciate for your contributions, 1 million Rohingya are being kept under genocidal blockage by Myanmar regime since June 2012