June 18, 2009

Forced displacement, intimidation, and abuse in Kutupalong makeshift camp

Kutupalong, Bangladesh, June 18, 2009—Thousands of unregistered Rohingya refugees living in the Kutupalong makeshift camp, Bangladesh, are being forcibly displaced from their homes, in an act of intimidation and abuse by the local authorities. The international medical organization Doctors Without Border/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has treated numerous people for injuries, of which the majority were women and children. Furthermore, MSF has witnessed countless destroyed homes and heard many reports of people being warned to remove their own shelters or face the consequences.

“I was working. When I went back to my shelter I found it totally destroyed,” said a camp resident. “An inspector was there with nine or 10 people. I asked why they destroyed my house. They showed me a fish cutter and said, ‘If you say anything, I’ll cut you.’ ”

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority originating from Myanmar, are denied citizenship and suffer persecution and discrimination in Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh and Thailand.

To date, an estimated 25,000 people have flocked to the Kutupalong makeshift camp hoping for recognition and assistance. Instead of finding help, they have been told that they cannot live next to the official camp, supported by the Bangladesh Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Nor can they legally live on adjacent Forestry Department land. They have nowhere to go and no way to meet their basic needs.

“I cannot move,” said another camp resident. “If we go to collect wood we will be arrested. If we collect water we will be beaten. If we move our house, where should we go?”

In March, 2009, MSF was alerted to fast-rising numbers in the makeshift camp and conducted an assessment. There were 20,000 people living in dire humanitarian conditions with global acute malnutrition rates above the emergency threshold, 90 percent food insecurity, poor water and sanitation, and no assistance.

“To forcibly displace this group when they are already so vulnerable is outrageous,” said Gemma Davies, MSF project coordinator for the Kutupalong makeshift camp.

MSF responded immediately by treating the severely malnourished children, offering basic health care and improving water sources and waste facilities.

“Within four weeks of opening, we had almost 1,000 children in our feeding program,” said Davies. “The rainy season has begun and the appalling water and sanitation situation is further deteriorating, increasing the risk of communicable diseases. These people have little to no access to even the most basic of services and they are being forced to flee in fear, with nowhere to turn. The situation is deplorable.”

Denied citizenship in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their homes to seek refuge abroad. Few have been granted refugee status. The majority struggle to survive, unrecognized and unassisted in countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand.

A fundamental solution for the Rohingya, not only in countries where they seek asylum but at their origin, is crucial to restoring the health and dignity of these long suffering people.

MSF has assisted people in Bangladesh since 1992, most recently setting up a basic healthcare program in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, assisting victims of Cyclone Aila and implementing an emergency intervention to assist unregistered Rohingya in Kutupalong makeshift camp, with services also open to the host community.