The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh has become a critical humanitarian crisis.
Orphaned children are among the thousands flooding the refugee camps and overwhelming UN and Red Cross teams on the ground.
An aid worker and a former Rohingya refugee now living in New Zealand say the violence must stop.
Seasoned Red Cross nurse Guru Dev Singh has just returned home to Wellington from working in the Red Cross mobile unit near Cox’s Bazar, the main camp for the Rohingya in Bangladesh. She has served in Iraq, Gaza and across Africa but found this refugee crisis to be overwhelming and traumatising.
“People described how their babies were taken away from them and thrown on the ground and kicked like footballs.”
Guru Dev says the refugees were mostly women and children, some of whom had been the victims of sexual violence.
“There were victims of gang-rape and by the time they get to us, which is like two, three days old, so the standard treatment you give, they go past that. So you can’t give them the morning after pills.
“They told us it was soldiers,” says Guru Dev. “From Myanmar, and the villagers, the local Myanmar people. We just go by what they told us. We have no way of verifying their stories but it seemed like that the stories were consistent.”
“Also children who had no adults with them. These kids were very vulnerable to trafficking and child abuse as well or being sold as labourers or as domestic – mostly sold to people who would use them for domestic labour.”
The coastal state of Rakhine in Myanmar is used to be home to around 1 million Rohingya Muslims. But when government forces smashed insurgent uprisings in August this year, there were reports of villages being burned to the ground and mass killings of the Rohingya.
It was thought that around 200,000 Rohingya fled at that time, but the UNHCR now estimates more than 655,000, or two-thirds of the population of Rohingyas, are living in abject conditions in refugee camps along the Bangladesh border.
Guru Dev says the conditions in the camps are overwhelming. Humidity and heavy rains mean the aid teams are working in seas of mud. Initial shelters are little more than tarpaulin held up by bamboo poles.
“All I see around me are these dazed confused people, looking absolutely exhausted. On the no-man’s land, these people were living on a 10-metre strip of land. One side is paddy fields and the other side the Naf River. The border guards wouldn’t let them in.”
The Naf River is an international river marking the border of southeastern Bangladesh and western Myanmar.
“When the Rakhine people came into the country – because they were coming in such influx, large numbers we didn’t have time to prepare. Our infrastructures weren’t ready. And the rain doesn’t help, you are working in knee-deep mud. Everything was sinking – even our hospital was sinking. The ground was washing away.”
The risk of disease outbreaks is serious with no sanitation. “So they would build a toilet right next to a water supply,” says Guru Dev. “The water is contaminated as well and people are drinking this. So if there is an outbreak of diphtheria, cholera, it would spread like wildfire.”
Anayat Ullah is one of a small number of Rohingya Muslims living in New Zealand. He arrived here in 2006 as a 16-year-old refugee but still has family living in one of the camps.
“I was born and raised in a Bangladesh refugee camp. My parents were forced to flee Burma in 1978 and took shelter in Bangladesh due to the same kind of persecution that is going on there [today].”
The Rohingya, a minority Muslim group in this predominantly Buddhist country, are no strangers to persecution. They’ve been stateless since 1982 after a change in citizenship laws classed them as non-citizens. Anayat was among the first wave of Rohingyas to become refugees or illegal immigrants in Bangladesh, in a vicious cycle of flight, being forced back and then forced to flee again.
“Rohingya nowadays become like a soccer ball or football between Bangladesh and Myanmar. When Bangladesh send them back to Myanmar, there is nothing. There is no citizenship, no human rights. This is the cycle.
“I lived in there [Kutupalong refugee camp] for 16 years of my life without any education, and no proper food, as a refugee, like living in an open prison.”
Anayat has two sisters living in the camps. Last week he joined Amnesty International to appeal to the New Zealand government on their behalf and for all of his people. He is disappointed by the response to the crisis from Myanmar’s President, Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
“She is a de-facto leader of Myanmar. Being a Noble laureate you have been given one of the biggest honours on the planet, you’ve been given this honour to speak out. She has been really silent. Her implacable silence – these people don’t have anything but their cultural identity and you’re trying to strip that as well.”
Guru Dev Singh is not optimistic for the Rohingyas, fearing violence will inevitably erupt between host communities and the massive influx of refugees.
“They are stateless. They are living in a country that doesn’t recognise them. Three-quarters of the population of the Rakhine State are living on the borders of Bangladesh, and they are in these camps. We cannot keep up with the arrival of these people.”
““I haven’t met anybody who hasn’t lost somebody.” Says Guru Dev. “There is no quick solution. For these people, Myanmar is still home but they don’t feel it’s safe to go home yet.”