COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh -- The number of Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in western Myanmar's Rakhine state and taken refuge in neighboring Bangladesh has swollen to over 620,000.
Members of an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar, the refugees saw their houses torched and their relatives and neighbors killed, mutilated, and raped. They now face another struggle in the overcrowded and desperate refugee camps around Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh.
Many of the refugees carry severe psychological damage after what they have seen and endured. Children have witnessed relatives and neighbours being killed. Some are carrying more than scars. Many of the pregnant women are rape victims.
About 90 displaced adult and underage women assaulted by soldiers and other men in Rakhine state have been seen at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinics since late August. "We believe these cases represent just a fraction of the actual number of Rohingya women and children who have been sexually assaulted," said Maya Zahran, the field communications manager for MSF Bangladesh. "Women are often reluctant to seek our services owing to a number of factors, including the shame and stigma."
The latest refugee crisis dates from late August, and has been characterized as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the U.N.'s top human rights official, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein. According to refugees, Myanmar's military have torched Rohingya villages, killed and wounded people of all ages, and sexually assaulted women and girls. The military in Myanmar deny the allegations against them, but these are entirely consistent with the standard tactics used against minorities in Myanmar for decades.
"We are deeply concerned by credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar's security forces and by vigilantes who are unrestrained by the security forces during the recent violence in Rakhine State," Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state recently told reporters in Myanmar. That view is generally supported by the international community.
International relief and non-government organizations only provide rice, potatoes, and cooking oil, according to Mohammed Alam, 32, a refugee at Unchiprang camp, 60km south of Cox's Bazar. Alam was an elementary school teacher in Rakhine state. His wife gave birth to their daughter at the camp in October. "I want to buy chicken, but can't," he said, concerned about his wife's health as she breastfeeds.
Like many refugees who need cash for a more balanced diet, Alam sells some of his food rations to Bangladeshi brokers. Of the 30kg of rice and 4kg of cooking oil he receives each month, he sells 4kg of the rice and 1kg of the oil for 160 taka ($1.95). He can buy vegetables and fish in the camp from time to time, but not meat.
Because of the unprecedented scale of the refugee influx, the Bangladeshi government and international organizations have been unable to cope fully. According to UNICEF, serious malnutrition affects 7.5% of the refugee children.
The latest persecution was triggered by a group of Rohingya militants attacking security posts in Myanmar, and the Bangladeshi government is concerned that some of the perpetrators may have entered the camps. The movements of refugees have therefore been restricted, and opportunities for generating cash are extremely limited. Farming and fishing work is only available within the camps, and there are no further employment options.
We believe these cases represent just a fraction of the actual number of Rohingya women and children who've been sexually assaultedMaya Zahran, Field Communications Manager at MSF Bangladesh
Badi Akhter, the country director for Oxfam Bangladesh, is aware of brokers already in the camps looking for refugee parents who willing to accept money for their daughters to go and work in Dhaka's garment factories. Although these recruitment activities are limited for now, Akhter said the camps could become hotbeds of human trafficking. "We have to start thinking immediately about how to give cash to refugees," he said.
Like Myanmar, Bangladesh is an emerging economy with per capita gross domestic product of less than $1,500. The refugee camps have affected the local economy, driving up the cost of materials needed to build shelters. Refugees have quickly spent what little money they brought from Myanmar, often exchanging it at half the regular rate.