Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stateless refugee mothers fall through the cracks in Bangladesh

Misha Hussain – Women News Network – WNN

Twenty-six year old Rohingya mother, Rashida Begum, is seven months pregnant. She and her four children have lived in Katupalong makehift refugee camp for four years. Image: Misha Hussain

(WNN) DHAKA, Bangladesh: Mothering in the Kutupalong makeshift refugee camp in the southwest of Bangladesh is about as tough as it gets. Without the right to work or receive humanitarian aid, women and children bear the brunt of the international community’s unwillingness to tackle a 20-year-old issue. Some mothers are as young as the age of 16. Many suffer, along with their children, from acute malnutrition, hunger and starvation. Many have little access to education or healthcare.

Burmese Rohingya refugees are in a growing state of crisis in Bangladesh as authorities prevent international aid measures to help them. Relief agencies such as MSF – Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Physicians for Human Rights are now facing their lowest ebb with cooperation from Bangladesh government authorities as they attempt to bring medical aid and higher food nutrition into Kutupalong camp. Another aid organization, Islamic Relief Worldwide, has recently pulled out due to inability to receive required permits to assist those in need inside camp.

As aid programs and program funding to help the Rohingya are now being discontinued by the Bangladesh government, Burmese refugee mothers are falling through the cracks.

“Bangladesh has increased restrictions on aid agencies working with the refugees,” says a recent Refugees International report. As Médecins Sans Frontières faces one wall after another with on-the-ground outreach inside Bangladesh, Rohingya women suffer from a decreased and critical extinction in the little medical programs left for them.

“Life is difficult, but whose isn’t? You take the rough with the smooth and pray that things will get better.” – Khushida Begum, mother of one at the Kutupalong camp

At the very bottom of Rohingya society are women and girls who live unprotected lives as stateless unrecognized members of Bangladesh society. Deprived of many human rights including the right to work, as well as the rights of citizenship, in both Bangladesh and their original home north of the Myanmar/Burma border, they struggle to keep their lives intact. The original home for the ethnic Rohingya in Burma dates as far back as the 7th Century A.D.

Pregnant Khushida Begum, age twenty, has one child. She has lived in the Kutupalong camp for two years. Image: Misha Hussain

While Rohingyas are not officially recognized in Bangladesh as refugees, legal recognition for them is vital to their survival and their ability to gain, and keep, asylum. Even the ethnic identity of the Rohingyas has been questioned in Myanmar, as well as neighboring Bangladesh.

Life is far from easy. In the Kutupalong makeshift camp, Rohingya women are forced to accept lives that continue to harshly limit them. Today they receive little to no access to employment education, proper or safe shelter, maternal health services or protection from personal violence.

As Bangladesh closes the door on aid coming into the country, lack of options for Rohingya women to receive maternal health care is now reaching a critical crisis.

“I don’t know what I’m going to call the child, right now I just hope the child is born.” – Jahida Begum, mother of two, nine months pregnant

Marriage rights too have been an issue for many women and girls, but not in Bangladesh. In Myanmar permission for girls over the age of eighteen to marry is not permitted without paying a prohibitively high fee; a fee that most Rohingya families could never pay. Because of this, some families have relocated to Bangladesh to enable their daughters to marry more easily.

But even with permissions, marriage in situations of severe poverty often meet roadblocks. Numerous women are left alone caring for their children as husbands leave the camp to find work elsewhere for weeks or months at a time.

Twenty year old Kushida Begum has one child. She has been in the Kutupalong camp for two years. Image: Misha Hussain

“(Rohingyas) are the only ethnic group in Burma restricted from marriage, traveling beyond their village or building or maintaining religious structures,” says international advocacy and assistance organization, Refugees International. “In addition, they are subject to frequent forced labor, arbitrary taxation, sexual violence and land confiscations by the NaSaKa (Burma military forces),” adds Refugees International

When husbands leave for work in neighboring regions, women as heads-of-households are forced to get their family’s food rations, as well as search and find clean potable water along with wood for cooking and heating their home. Dangers for women who often walk hours to gather basic necessities cause an ongoing, and serious, safety dilemma. Cases of rape are not uncommon.

“If I can educate my child, I will have been a good mother.” – Eighteen year old Rohingya mother, Anwara Begum, pregnant with no children

Concerns at public community toilets in the camp are also a real safety issue as less than one toilet is available to women per ten families at Kutupalong. When rape does happen women have no access to making police reports or to receiving medical help.

Protection for women and girls against domestic violence and sexual assault too is literally non-existent inside the camp.

Eighteen year old Anwara Begum has no children She is nine months pregnant and has lived in Kutupalong camp for three years. Image: Misha Hussain

What many now claim was an attempt at ethnic cleansing by Burma’s General Ne Win in 1978, over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh following reports of widespread torture, death and atrocity called the King Dragon Operation in Arkan.

But the numbers of those who migrated are not reliable. Current reported numbers of Rohingya living inside Bangladesh today may number over twice the reported figures. Under reporting and lack of accurate statistics mapping has contributed to a trend in deteriorating conditions.

According UNHCR – the United Nations Refugee Agency 1997 statistics, 27,400 refugees have been living in two makeshift camps: the Kutupalong and Nayapara camps on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Ten years following the UNHCR data release, the 2007 GoB – Government of Bangladesh figures show a lower 26,000 figure for both camps.

Current Bangladesh government policies of ignoring stateless members, and their growing numbers, match persistent and growing problems inside the camps where ignoring needs are part of a targeted effort to get minority migrants to permanently leave the region.

“When a child calls you mother, that’s the greatest joy in the world.” – Rashida Begum, mother of four children, seven months pregnant

In Bangladesh, people give many reasons for excluding the Rohingya minority, including their ancient language; a language which has only been officially recognized since 2007 as a “one of the world’s unique languages.” As Muslims, their brand of ethnic Sunni faith is also seen as a religious dividing line between themselves and others.

Anu Begum is twenty years old. She has lived in the Kutupalong camp for one year with her only child. Image: Misha Hussain

Because Burmese Rohingya refugees are undocumented ‘illegal’ immigrants, women and girls are facing many of the same problems and situations of humiliation they faced in Myanmar. Exploitation is common. Women, and their families, who live with levels of extreme poverty are in constant danger of being tricked by human traffickers in what is often realized later as labour bondage or sex-trafficking schemes.

Disease and crisis conditions with food diarrhea and amoebic dysentery, often followed by severe dehydration, are found throughout the Kutupalong camp as mothers try to protect their children from camp based water; where sewage management does not exist and water is teaming with microbial pollutants from feces.

“I’m scared. I didn’t want another child, but I didn’t understand how to use the pill. My two children are still very young. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to support the new baby when it arrives. As a mother, if I can’t feed my children, I feel hurt.” – Noor Kalima, eight months pregnant, two children

With low access to even the most simple oral re-hydration formula commonly used in Bangladesh, that includes water, salt and sugar, many Rohingya refugee mothers are forced to watch helplessly as their children’s health deteriorates due to contaminated water.

Twenty-three year old Noor Kalima has lived in the Kutupalong makeshift camp for the past four years. She has four children and is eight months pregnant. Image: Misha Hussain
Sanitation during childbirth is also an issue. Expectant mothers run unnecessary and high risks during childbirth due to lack of medical support offered in case of complicated deliveries. While Bangladeshi mothers nationwide have shown a remarkable forty percent decrease in maternal mortality over the past nine years, minority migrant women living in makeshift camps have not been counted or included in the study.

With neither prospect of asylum in Bangladesh nor hope of returning to their native Arakan State in Myanmar, 500 miles northwest of the Burmese capital Yangon, these Rohingya mothers and children survive within the camp by taking refuge in the only thing they have left, each other.
Interesting FACTS:
· An estimated 44% of households are headed by women
· The global acute malnutrition rate in the Kutupalong Makeshift Camp is 30%, double the emergency threshold and 10% higher than in Somalia.
· Some 250,000 Burmese refugees live in Bangladesh, of which just 28,000 come under the protection of the UNHCR. The others live hidden in the villages or within large communities in makeshift camps. Kutu Palong makeshift has 20,000 refugees.
· A US $33 million United Nations joint initiative to regenerate the area where the refugees live was rejected by the Bangladesh government last month.

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